It is no exaggeration to say that we live in a golden era of true crime content. Compressing a true crime story as a feature film will not cut it anymore. The game has changed; a limited series, a stand-alone documentary, or even a documentary series, will be best served on long-form TV streaming.
A true crime story like Under the Banner of Heaven would’ve never worked as a feature film. The success of crime shows like Mindhunter, When They See Us, Unbelievable, the Dropout, and so on have created solid demand for this type of content. It is going to be a crowded field for quality true crime content in the upcoming years, and I, for one, couldn’t be happier.
Having said that, Under the Banner of Heaven is based on the 2003 nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer and adapted by Academy Award winner Dustin Lance Black (MILK, 2009), who himself was raised as a Mormon. So he knows what he is writing about.
The story follows a police detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), who investigates the murder of a young woman and her baby. It also explores the early days and formation of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, aka the Mormons, their extreme fundamentalist roots, and their unflattering history. The clashing between Mormons, fundamental Mormonism (FMLDS), and former Mormons take center stage here. It is all about disturbing, violent things — and extremist views.
Set in the early 80s, Detective Pyre and his partner Detective Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham) connect the dots between the murder victim Brenda (Daisy Edgard Jones) and her in-laws. Brenda is married to Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle), the younger member of the Lafferty clan, a very prominent Mormon family. The Lafferty’s have extremist views on government and marriage. They believe in polygamy, no taxation, and their divine right to kill anyone who opposes their beliefs in the name of God.
Detective Pyre, a devout Mormon, goes on a personal journey of self-discovery. Through his investigation, he begins to challenge his own church and his own beliefs as he pieces together the damning evidence against the Laffertys and the troubled history of the early founding of the Mormon church. This is a very procedural detective drama told through multiple flashbacks, exploring the background of Mormon history and the roots of FMLDS beliefs. We see the history of anti-government sentiment from the early Mormon pioneers, including Joseph Smith, Emma Smith, and Brigham Young. The flashbacks to the actual formation of the church were essential to the story but received very little screentime. I think an entire episode should’ve been dedicated to the origins of Mormonism.
Nonetheless, Andrew Garfield is excellent — His detective work leads him to challenge all of his beliefs; He goes from this die-hard Mormon to having a crisis of faith. Jeb is a well-conceived fictional character, serving as a framing device for the audience to understand things better. Also, Detective Taba is a pretty compelling character, serving as a stand-in for a non-Mormon perspective.
The members of the Lafferty family are outstanding. They go from a typical conservative Mormon family to a bunch of extreme anti-government nut-jobs. The head of the family and patriarch, Amon Lafferty (Christopher Heyerdahl), was terrifying — a solid performance. Dan Lafferty (Wyatt Russell) is exceptional as the most deranged and anti-government family member. Ron Lafferty (Sam Worthington) is pretty convincing as the self-proclaimed prophet.
Watching this show, I learned so many terms and ideologies about Mormonism that I never knew before. Things like Blood Atonement, Priesthood Holder, and Celestial Marriage. Getting to see and learn all of this stuff was great and all, but I felt like the cultish behavior of the FMLDS needed to be explored further. Nevertheless, Under the Banner of Heaven is an extraordinary limited series; it is framed as a crime story, highlighting Mormon culture in Utah — where a quiet, peaceful community encounters a gruesome murder of a mother and her baby. But it also serves as an indictment of Mormonism and its questionable origins.
Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿
UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN (2022)