Under the Banner of Heaven introduces us to Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), who has been called into a murder investigation in a sleepy Utah town. A young LDS woman (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her infant daughter have been brutally slaughtered in their home, and as Detective Pyre begins to learn the murder is connected to a prominent LDS family, he begins to uncover dark secrets about the family’s past … and the dark past of his church.
Under the Banner of Heaven is based on a book of the same name by best-selling author Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, and many more). The true crime novel bounces between the investigation into the Lafferty family, the Mormon Church, and the sordid past that started back when Joseph Smith had his “visions” in Palmyra, New York. The book is fascinating to the point where the secrets the Mormon Church doesn’t want you to know (and definitely not its members) are almost more interesting than the crime and investigation itself.
However, from what I recall, the book felt a little more like an analytical history book than a narrative, so I was curious to see how FX and Hulu would make Under the Banner of Heaven a drama series. Andrew Garfield’s Detective Jeb Pyre is fictional–one who stands in as our stock character who has a crisis of faith. Adding to the fictionalized lineup is Gil Birmingham’s Detective Bill Taba, who is Detective Pyre’s loyal but wise-cracking atheist partner (and as a Native American, the character who receives the brunt of the Mormon Church’s veiled derision of people with “dark skin”).
Garfield plays that fake, saccharine Mormon niceness almost too well, and Birmingham offers a nice counterbalance that gives the characters a yin and yang dynamic. Unfortunately, the series is heavily bogged down by stilted dialogue that is meant to show us the oddities and the dark shadows of the Mormon Church. Detective Pyre’s family life introduces us to the strange ceremonies of “sanctification” that each LDS member must go through almost too obviously, and Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle)–who acts more or less as the police informant on his own family–is chalk full of expositional lines that feel forced into the show to give us the same effect that the book had. I don’t know if it’s because I lived in LDS country for a short time and thoroughly studied the church to be ready for the missionaries who always came knocking (so none of it was exactly new information), but none of the expositional dialogue and the historical cutaways felt natural. By the time we reach the climax in the final episode, I was more than ready for the seven-episode series to be over.
There were a few bright spots in the show; Daisy Edgar-Jones charmingly portrayed the unfortunate Brenda Lafferty as a woman who valued her faith but also pushed its boundaries for the sake of her fierce independence. On the flip side of her refreshing character, Wyatt Russell and Sam Worthington brilliantly morphed into Dan and Ron Lafferty, respectively, as two fundamentalists who gradually decline into a cult-frenzied madness. I found the scenes focused on the Lafferty family drama the most interesting.
A final thought about the show is its approach to the LDS Church and religion in general: In Krakauer’s book, he lays Joseph Smith bare for the swindler he was but makes a strong argument for why it makes sense that Mormonism was birthed in America–an “All-American” religion, if you will. He offers us evidence for a healthy degree of skepticism toward the LDS Church (and absolute proof to never trust the FLDS Church–polygamy, incest, and all) but is mostly respectful toward the idea of faith in something. Under the Banner of Heaven as a TV show has a stronger degree of hostility, and Andrew Garfield’s eventual abandonment of the faith is cathartic yet not fully satisfying. As he looks around his life, he finds ways to put “faith” in his mother, his wife, his children, his friends, and himself. On the surface, that’s all well and good, but the subjectivity of that all can quickly lead to a miserable life. People let you down. You, yourself, will let you down. Faith in a higher power can be an anchor for many.
Overall, Under the Banner of Heaven has a few bright spots, but they’re not enough to redeem the show as must-watch material. You’re much better off just sticking with the book.
Under the Banner of Heaven
Lafferty Family Drama8.0/10
Faithfulness to the book4.0/10
Forced expositional dialogue1.0/10
Reasons to hope in something1.0/10
- Starring: Andrew Garfield, Gil Birmingham, Billy Howle, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Sam Worthington, Wyatt Russell, Chloe Pirrie, Seth Numrich, Adelaide Clemens, Rory Culkin, et al
- Directors: Courtney Hunt, David Mackenzie, Dustin Lance Black, Isabel Sandoval, Thomas Schlamme
- Writer: Dustin Lance Black
- Producers: Jason Bateman, Dustin Lance Black, et al
- Studio: FX on Hulu