“Under the Banner of Heaven” could easily be a chaotic mess. The star-studded FX miniseries has a large cast, a story that deals with difficult moral issues, and many different storylines – but it deftly crafts all of its moving parts into an immersive and thoughtful true-crime drama.
Now streaming on Hulu (albeit from FX) and based on the non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer (“Into The Wild”), “Under the Banner of Heaven” is set in 1984 Utah and follows Mormon family man Detective Jeb Pyre ( Andrew Garfield) while investigating the murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones, “Normal People”) and her young daughter. The gruesome crime rocks the devout small-town community where most cops have yet to see a dead body.
Spoiler alert: The culprits are Brenda’s brother-in-law, Ron (Sam Worthington, “Avatar”) and Dan Lafferty (Wyatt Russell), who murdered her for “God commanded me so” reasons. The Laffertys, as the show explains, were big fish in this small pond, like a Utah version of the Kennedys.
Jeb and his partner Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham, “Yellowstone”) — a Las Vegas Indian who’s an outsider in this community — are a fictional invention for the show, and they’re one of several wise decisions that “Under the Banner of Heaven”.
By making Bill an outsider, the authors are able to explain some aspects of Mormons and their culture that are unfamiliar to viewers. And since Jeb is a man of faith, they are also able to view the Mormon Church not from a place of gawking but of sensitivity as Jeb is forced to examine his own congregation.
That gives Garfield the ability to deliver phrases like, “What if it’s not some evil from outside… that found its way here? What if tonight is just the first edge of a bone finally carving its way out of the soil of our own desert?” This might feel clumsy in a less experienced actor’s mouth, but Garfield lets it land.
Another great decision the show makes is that we don’t see the murdered bodies of the young mother and her young daughter, which a smaller series would show because of the shock value. “Under the Banner of Heaven” focuses on Jeb’s face as he reacts to the crime scene by dropping his professional cop facade and bursting into tears – which conveys the horror much better than a macabre image.
As Jeb and Bill interrogate Brenda’s widower, Allen (Billy Howle), Brenda’s story unfolds in flashbacks showing how, as the ambitious girl meets Allen’s family, the ambitious girl turns her brothers-in-law from friendliness to hostility. (Russell in particular is excellent at delivering a friendly facade with something that feels…out of lurking beneath the surface; he has a warm smile coupled with cold eyes and an underlying unsettling passion reminiscent of Tom Cruise’s energy in the infamous couch jumping incident).
As Allen explains to the police officers, although Brenda was also a Mormon, she did not come from the same fundamentalist branch that taught women to be as obedient and submissive to men as the Lafferty family expected, which angered Ron and Dan.
In addition to Jeb’s murder investigation and the flashbacks to Brenda’s ill-fated history with the Lafferty family, the show also has a third narrative thread that follows the history of the Mormon Church with its founder Joseph Smith (Andrew Burnap) and his wife, Emma (Tyner Rushing) in the 1820s years. Those scenes aren’t bad, but it feels like the show is trying too hard to point to the roots of Brenda’s tragic history and reveal how the rot goes all the way down. The show does a good job of making this clear on its own.
Overall, Under the Banner of Heaven is a nuanced story and an unusually thoughtful true-crime drama carried by outstanding cast.