Review: ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ Is Just a Touch Too Drab, Too Slow
The premise of FX on Hulu’s new limited series, Under the Banner of Heaven, based on the non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air) of the same name, has all the makings of a great true crime binge. When a detective is assigned to investigate the grisly murders of a young Mormon mother and her baby girl, the case begins to point inward at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), causing the detective to question his own Mormon faith. Adding to that excellent hook is some star power: Andrew Garfield, fresh off three successful 2021 movies (tick, tick…Boom!, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Spider-Man: No Way Home), in the role of the fictional Detective Jeb Pyre. Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People) joins him as the murder victim Brenda Lafferty. The execution of such a fascinating topic, however, leaves something to be desired.
It can’t be overstated how much some good exposition would help matters. For people unfamiliar with Mormonism, having to parse the terminology that packs the dialogue is confusing. Jeb’s partner, Detective Bill Taba (a likable Gil Birmingham), a Native American non-Mormon, might have served as a convenient audience surrogate to explain basic Mormon tenets, but doesn’t. For another, there’s not much of an introduction to Mormon life or community. We have no context for the crime, especially as the Laffertys, an esteemed LDS family, come under scrutiny as the probable perpetrators. There are many scenes depicting the story of the church’s founder Joseph Smith, but these are often too much of a distracting tangent and don’t really shed light on modern-day Mormonism.
As for Jeb Pyre? From the early scenes of him playing with his daughters and the warmth and love between him and his wife (Adelaide Clemens), it’s apparent that he’s a good man. And while he strongly believes in his religion — he harshly interrogates Brenda’s husband Allen (Billy Howle) about his faithfulness to his wife and to Heavenly Father — Jeb’s also clearly not so pious to be above breaking some minor LDS rules, as he sneaks a few bites of Bill’s fries. This plays out in a much larger way down the line when he has to stand up to church leaders in order to pursue justice in the case. Before we get there though, it’s tough in the early episodes to read Jeb’s reactions to a lot of the troubling information being thrown at him. Garfield, meanwhile, is at his best when he gets to be at least a little bit charming and energetic; this ultra-serious role doesn’t make great use of his talents.
The entire show really is just a touch too drab, too slow. Even the color tone is a far too on-the-nose sepia. The five episodes (out of seven total) released to the press all run well over an hour. A tighter script, a drop more of excitement, of lightness to provide some relief, would go a long way. That being said, once the case heats up, and we dig into the systems that have allowed abuse to be covered up, the show becomes far more engaging. We no longer have to scrutinize Garfield’s every expression to try to intuit what’s going through Jeb’s mind, because he’s saying it out loud, even when everyone with any authority is telling him to shut up. The flashbacks of the Lafferty family, and how Allen’s brothers became entangled in fundamentalist Mormonism, also start to make a lot more sense, as puzzle pieces drop into place, and a succinct line of dialogue properly orders it all for us.
Howle is excellent as the earnest and grieving widow. When he talks about how terrible the sexism instilled in Mormonism is — like making Brenda quit her job to have children, and making women swear to serve men — you can see the gears in Jeb’s head starting to turn. He’s a man who lives with his mother (Sandra Seacat), his wife, and two daughters, and fully loves all of them. What kind of life is he putting them through?
The series is just as concerned with these questions as it is with the case, which is what deepens it beyond the mere glittering scandal of true crime. The show’s downfall though, is that while gravitating towards minimalism to tell such a sensational story is a smart move, it overcorrects. The building blocks of a great show are there, but Banner never quite manages to properly put them together to create something truly satisfying.
Under the Banner of Heaven, Series Premiere, Thursday, April 28, FX & Hulu