Under The Banner of Heaven, review: Murder meets Mormonism in Andrew Garfield’s grisly true crime drama

Dustin Lance Black’s true-crime drama has nuance, but doesn’t hit the suspenseful beats like genre-loving audiences have grown accustomed to

Amanda Whiting
New York
Thursday 28 April 2022 10:41
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Under the Banner of Heaven trailer

Police interrogations look different in certain parts of Utah. We’ve seen TV cops ingratiate themselves with suspects before, but on Under the Banner of Heaven, faith is as important as the facts. As one detective proudly avows, “I’m a Mormon before I’m a cop.”

This startling true-crime series tells the story of the 1984 murder of a 24-year-old Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints woman, Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones), and her 15-month-old daughter in the small town of American Fork. The hunt for their killer forces Detective Jeb Pyre – the show’s fictional protagonist – into a reckoning with the violent fringes of the religion he’s practised all his life.

Based on the 2003 book from Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air), the series finds Jeb (Andrew Garfield, using only his softest, tenderest tones) still investigating the grisly crime scene when Brenda’s husband is taken into custody. Most of the officers immediately recognise his name, Allen Lafferty (Billy Howie), and from sunny flashbacks set in the years leading up to the double homicide, we quickly begin to understand why.

The Laffertys are an important family around Salt Lake City. In a helpful aside, Brenda, originally from Idaho, likens them to the sprawling Kennedy clan, which is part of Allen’s appeal. She’s moved to Utah in pursuit of two things: a career in broadcast news and a pious community to help her thrive.

But Idaho’s saint is Utah’s sinner. Edgar-Jones is effortfully cutesy as Brenda, and there’s charm in how hard she tries to get the Laffertys to like her back. She mostly wins over the wives of Allen’s many brothers, but the Lafferty men don’t trust a woman with her own ambitions. The formidable patriarch (Christopher Heyerdahl) is a tyrant, and his eldest son, played by Sam Worthington, is eager to inherit the mantle. Tense family scenes are leavened only by Scottish actor Chloe Pirrie’s coltish turn as Matilda, another of the Lafferty wives.

Mormonism isn’t simply a fact of these characters’ inner lives; it’s the series’ craggy landscape. Under the Banner of Heaven’s biggest challenge is to convey the finer details of the religion without getting lost in them. In early episodes especially, this excavation happens in the interrogation room, where Jeb and Allen, who claims he’s innocent, engrossingly debate the faith’s core values. These speeches are sometimes accompanied by historical reenactments that wouldn’t look out of place on the History Channel and which some – myself included – may find hokey.

Andrew Garfield in a still from Under the Banner of Heaven

But it’s the sifting of what separates Mormonism from the fundamentalist religions practised in its name that distinguishes Under the Banner of Heaven from the glut of true crime offerings on TV right now. It’s rare for Mormonism to get such subtle treatment in popular culture, with Broadway juggernaut The Book of Mormon and TLC’s reality series Sister Wives offering more scurrilous takes on the religion.

It’s when Jeb experiences a crisis of faith that the show’s pacing falters. The dialogue can be clunky and affected. “Oh, this case. What if it’s not just a husband whose heart turned against his wife?” Jeb asks his wife in what has to be TV’s least sexy shower scene ever. “What if tonight is just the first edge of a bone that’s finally worked its way out of our own desert’s floor?” His wife embraces him; what else is there for a wife to do?

Who killed Brenda and her baby becomes apparent pretty quickly. In this sense, Under the Banner of Heaven doesn’t hit the suspenseful beats we’ve come to expect from crime drama, but it has nuance the genre often lacks. What’s more interesting than how Jeb’s faith helps him crack the case is how often it gets in his way.

Under the Banner of Heaven’ is an FX production premiering on Hulu today. A UK release date is yet to be announced

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