Welcome to the blessed hills of Zion in 1980s Utah; where the suits are big, but the intrinsic nature of justifying heinous acts in the name of God are bigger. And unfortunately for small-town Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), he’s tasked with solving his devout tight-knit community’s most gruesome crime of all; the ritualistic murders of a woman and her 15-month-old baby by a group of extremist Mormons from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints (FLDS).
The seven-episode limited true-crime series, Under the Banner of Heaven, adapted from a 2003 nonfiction novel of the same name by Jon Krakauer, is an ambitious, albeit languid, unabashed faith-based exploration into the darker aspects of Mormonism.
Like the book, the show’s overarching narrative focuses on Dan (Wyatt Russell) and Ron Lafferty (Sam Worthington), two brothers from a larger, well-known modern Latter-Day Saint (LDS) family who are referred to as “The Kennedy’s of Utah”, while they descend into a fringe fundamentalist Mormon society that practices taboo acts such as polygamy and blood atonement. The latter of which is the catalyst for the show’s secondary focus, the life and untimely death of the Lafferty’s’ sister-in-law Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones).
This is where Garfield’s faithful LDS Detective Jeb Pyre, and emotional centerpiece of the series, comes in. Established in the first two episodes, we learn that Jeb is a generally happy-go-lucky family man through and through. He just wants to play on the lawn with his two young daughters, help his wife flip pineapple upside-down cake, take care of his ailing mother, do prayers, and solve any Zion crime by dinner time. However, his blissful family life and devotion to his religion are upended, after Jeb finds himself saddled with investigating the grizzly double murder. As the episodes progress and Jeb’s list of suspected killers within the FLDS community and extended Lafferty clan grows, so must the audiences’ knowledge about the nuances between the different Mormon sects for the atrocities committed to be understood. This is where the heavy-handed exposition of creator-writer Dustin Lance Black (Big Love) does a bit more harm than good to serve the narrative.
Because the series begins after Brenda’s demise, Jeb can only learn about who she was through the people he interrogates, which is presented as a series of flashbacks for the audience via his emotionally fraught conversations with her husband Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle) while in custody as a potential suspect. (Kudos to Edgar-Jones who plays the tenacious, spunky, and God-loving woman with an energy so palpable and bright that you almost forget you're watching a gloomy crime show.) Through these flashbacks, we learn that it’s Brenda’s sparkling charm, sharp wit, and career ambitions that contribute to both attracting Allen to her and the ire of the other Lafferty men due to her strong-willed nature. And then, to really understand why and how the different sects of Mormonism impede on female autonomy (and led to Brenda’s death in present-day), Black introduces another layer of flashbacks set during the founding days of Mormonism that showcases leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young in the mid-1800s. Other than giving the History channel a run for its money, the old-timey flashbacks parallel whatever spiritual hang-up or discomforting dark secret that Jeb has to confront about the case in real-time.
Flashbacks aside, the series does its best to balance complex themes of piety, morality, and centuries old toxic masculinity rooted in the Mormon doctrine, taking full advantage of each episode’s runtime that clocks in at just over an hour. (Episodes range from 63-68 minutes in the five of seven episodes screened by critics.) In less experienced hands, it would be easy for the series to just be another droll, exploitive, unthought-provoking entry to the Mormon true crime genre (a la Netflix’s Murder Amongst the Mormons). But Black’s own experience having grown up in LDS faith, allows him to successfully craft a holy trinity of rigorous and sensitive examination of the religion both as a whole and the sum of its more radical parts. What would cause a devout Mormon to suddenly become disillusioned? Or rather, what would cause certain individuals in a religion focused on love and enlightenment to commit heinous acts in the name of God?
What makes Under the Banner of Heaven so compelling and different from other entries in the religious true crime genre is the way it can challenge the audiences’ perceptions of faith along with its leading detective. (More on Garfield’s riveting performance in a bit.) While the show highlights a vast array of representation on the Mormon scale ranging from serious trigger warning historical moments to the more mundane, it is careful not to take a pro or anti-religious stance. In fact, the only position that the show takes lies in Jeb’s desire to solve the murder investigation at the cost of him losing his faith in the process. It’s pro-investigation and self-examination at the core of our own moral center.
A shining example of this comes in Episode 4, my favorite of the bunch, that allows Garfield’s notorious ability to suffer beautifully (like his other religiously tinged projects Silence and Angels in America) reach an apex.
The small-town LDS community of which Jeb lives frowns upon anyone who slightly steps out of the norm of their secular teachings. So, when Jeb goes against his Bishop’s wishes and starts questioning the townsfolk about forbidden acts tied to Brenda’s murder, he is immediately faced with the threat of ostracization.
After a harrowing conversation down at the precinct with a high-ranking member of the LDS who aims to undermine Jeb’s investigation, Jeb, via Garfield’s ability to feign looks of utter devastation with potency and ease, spirals into a state of tremendous stress, disbelief, and disgust that ends up with him dry heaving behind his desk.
It’s a great turning point for Jeb, who up until that moment, had been reluctant to confront the multitudes of dark secrets and unjust policies that make up the foundation of the religion he is so devoted to. It’s also interesting to watch Jeb reconcile that while he isn’t as bad as the other men in his congregation who help perpetuate the idea of subservience to their wives and daughters, he’s not exactly exempt from benefiting from the patriarchal structures of Mormonism either.
“Which kind of Mormons are you protecting with your silence?” Jeb asks during an impatient round of interrogations with another LDS family man like himself. But sharp audience members will catch that the question also points inward as he tackles his own placement within the religion.
Overall, having only watched five of the seven episodes available, I am unable to conclude on whether Jeb’s inner turmoil offers him (and by proxy, the audience) some form of release in the conclusion of his investigation. But I do know, that under the banner of harrowing monologues and intense confrontations helmed by a stellar ensemble cast of Garfield, Russell (Falcon and the Winter Soldier), Worthington (Avatar), Edgar-Jones (Fresh), Howle (The Serpent) and Gil Birmingham (Twilight), which is enough to power through any of the series’ exposition-heavy moments, of which there are plenty, no weapons heavenly or otherwise could possibly fail to disappoint audiences in its conclusion.
Under the Banner of Heaven streams on Hulu April 28.