‘Under the Banner of Heaven’: Acting the main draw for series on shocking Utah murders
Hulu drama worth seeing for Andrew Garfield as a Mormon detective and Daisy Edgar-Jones as a family’s doomed newcomer.
What a remarkable string of performances Andrew Garfield has delivered over the last couple of years, from his underrated work as the slimy charlatan Jim Bakker opposite Academy Award winner Jessica Chastain in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” to his Oscar-nominated turn as Jonathan Larson in “tick, tick…BOOM!” to his triumphant return to the web in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and now his smoldering and empathetic work as a Mormon detective in the uneven but often stunningly impactful limited true-crime series “Under the Banner of Heaven.” At 38, Garfield has solidified his standing as one of the most versatile and interesting actors of his generation.
In the series’ premiere episode, which is set in 1984, Garfield’s Detective Jeb Pyre is summoned to the scene of a gruesome double murder, where a young wife and mother named Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her infant daughter Erica have been slain in their home. With docudrama-style camerawork tracking Jeb as he enters the home, we see bloodstains everywhere and there’s a glimpse of a body in the distance—but the horror of what has transpired is conveyed through Jeb’s expressions as he reels from the shock, struggles to maintain his composure, and then manages to get himself together and to encourage a young officer on the scene to do the same. They have a job to do.
Based on the non-fiction bestseller of the same name by the greatly respected journalist Jon Krakauer (“Into the Wild”) and adapted for television by Dustin Lance Black (“Big Love,” “Milk”), who grew up in a Mormon family, “Under the Banner of Heaven” tells the shocking true story of those 1984 murders and the ripple effects felt throughout the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
A seven-part series premiering with two episodes Thursday on Hulu. A new episode will be released on each subsequent Thursday.
Garfield’s Jeb Pyre is actually a fictional construct representing two worlds: the pious, spiritually cloistered, fiercely protective and sometimes stunningly archaic Mormon community, of which Jeb is a devoted and proud member, and the outsider’s worldview, i.e., Jeb the police detective, who will have to buck traditions and risk his family being ostracized as his investigation leads him into the darkest corners of a particularly powerful and seemingly untouchable Mormon family.
Daisy Edgar-Jones is a luminous presence as Brenda Wright Lafferty, who comes from a relatively progressive family of Idaho Mormons and falls in love with Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle). When Allen takes Brenda to meet the extended Lafferty clan at the family compound in American Fork, Utah (about 30 miles southeast of Salt Lake City), she is woefully unprepared for the cult-like fanaticism of this brood, led by a stern and sometimes cruel patriarch, Ammon (Christopher Heyerdahl), who claims his every proclamation is a direct edict from “Heavenly Father.”
Lurking just beneath all the sunny greetings and the happy children running about and the wives dutifully waiting on their husbands, there’s an ugly undercurrent of tension and dysfunction, with Ammon clearly disapproving of Brenda and her modern ways of thinking while also shunning oldest son Ron (Sam Worthington) in announcing that a younger brother, Dan (Wyatt Russell), will succeed Ammon in running the family.
Flash forward to 1984, with Jeb investigating the double murder with his partner Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham) , an outsider because he recently moved to Utah from Las Vegas and more so because he’s a Native American who has little appreciation for certain tenets of the Mormon faith and even less patience when a Lafferty starts reciting from the Book of Mormon and maintains their rules trump government laws .
Jeb and Bill have Allen in custody, but Allen insists he didn’t commit the murders as he rails on about the bearded intruders who killed his wife and daughter out of some sort of warped and unholy belief that they were following the will of God. The investigation eventually turns to brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty—and as we see in flashback sequences, each of these supposedly devout men has previously demonstrated truly evil inclinations.
As Krakauer did in the book, showrunner Black expands the story from the murder and the subsequent investigation into a larger examination of the darkest sides of Mormonism dating back to the early 19th century, when Joseph Smith founded the movement. Throughout the series (made by FX for Hulu), we get extended flashback sequences focusing on pivotal events in the movement’s early history—but there’s a curious and precipitous drop in production values in those scenes in the 1800s, as if we’re suddenly watching a relatively low-budget basic cable documentary series with borderline cheesy re-creations.
So many dramatic limited series indulge in too much padding while telling the story over a multiple-episode arc; in the case of “Under the Banner of Heaven,” losing the entire 19th century storyline in favor of concentrating on the modern-day scandal might well have catapulted this series from good to near-great. Still, this is an involving and fascinating and sometimes shocking effort, with strong writing and outstanding performances from the entire cast, with Andrew Garfield leading the way and Daisy Edgar-Jones giving the story its true heart.