Recommended: Under the Banner of Heaven on FX on Hulu
What's Under the Banner of Heaven About?
Based on the acclaimed nonfiction book by Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven follows a Mormon detective as he investigates the gruesome double murder of a young wife and her infant daughter, plunging him deep into the religious extremes, closed ranks, and dark history of his community.
Why (and to whom) do we recommend it?
Anyone who's read Krakauer's riveting book will be excited that it's finally being adapted for the screen. They'll also be confronted, almost immediately, by the daunting task set before Dustin Lance Black in adapting a book that was half true-crime investigation and half historical deep-dive into the Mormon religion. In uncovering the details of the murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty, and burrowing deep into the dark and secretive recesses of Mormon fundamentalism, Krakauer found parallels and reverberations within the story of Joseph Smith, his dubious claims to revelation, and the bloody path that led the Mormons to their Utah home.
The inclusion of Krakauer's historical research is where Black's adaptation struggles most visibly, with characters pausing in the middle of evidence gathering or police interrogation to muse about Joseph Smith's relationship with his wife or the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre, accompanied by flashbacks that at times resemble History Channel-style reenactments. But even with those structural hiccups, Under the Banner of Heaven is a gripping true-crime tale, anchored by Andrew Garfield's committed performance. Black created the detective for this adaptation, but Jeb Pyre is more than a mere cipher, as his investigation into a murder that reaches deep into the roots of his Mormon faith ends up rattling him more than he expects. Gil Birmingham similarly does fantastic work with a role that's mostly there to be the audience's surrogate, the non-Mormon outsider who gets clarification on the rites and rituals of the faithful. He harnesses a righteous anger at what's been carried out in the name of religion that few around him are able (or willing) to articulate.
The investigation takes the story back in time to Brenda Lafferty's often fractious relationship with her in-laws, a prominent Utah family led by a domineering patriarch (Christopher Hyerdahl) that kept incredibly conservative and traditional family structures. Daisy Edgar-Jones is magnetic as Brenda, playing her as an open and enthusiastic soul who, even as she observes the Lafferty men drifting toward ever more fundamentalist values, seeks to help them improve. With Allen, she seems to find the Lafferty brother most suitable to her (comparatively) modern sensibilities, but Howle does a good job playing Allen's reticence to stand up to his brothers. Later, he also embodies horror and regret at the life Allen foisted on Brenda.
While Krakauer's book was written in the early Aughts and the murder at its center took place in the 1980s, Black — along with an all-star team of directors including David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water), Courtney Hunt (Frozen River), Isabel Sandoval (Lingua Franca), and Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing) — does a remarkably effective job at making the story resonate. Dan and Ron Lafferty's split with mainstream Mormonism is a rabbit hole that plunges them into the ugly depths of polygamy (including the subjugation of underage girls) and the "blood atonement" justification for the murder of perceived apostates. It begins, however, with run-of-the-mill anti-government, anti-tax stances that aren't uncommon in modern conservatism.
Wyatt Russell is terrifyingly effective at portraying Dan's rapid-onset radicalism, from wanting to get the federal bureaucracy off his back (pun related to the family chiropractic business intended) to declaring that Mormon doctrine dictates that LDS people aren't required to obey laws that were not originally part of the Constitution. "They changed the rules on us," Dan tells his brothers, "and we're going to put it back in order," echoing the regressive calls to action behind everything in the current political environment from abortion laws to "Don't Say Gay" to anti-Critical Race Theory panic to the January 6th insurrection. The religious mania to which the Lafferty brothers gravitate once they've decided to reset the world has a frightening similarity to the times we're living in.
Pairs well with