REVIEW | UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN

The last episode of FX true crime series Under The Banner of Heaven just arrived on Hulu this past Thursday, and what a nerve wracking ride it has been over the past month. 

Created by Academy Award-winner filmmaker, Dustin Lance Black, and based on a homonymous nonfiction book written by Jon Krakauer, Under The Banner of Heaven follows the story of an East Rockwell police detective, Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), as he investigate the brutal murder of a young Mormon woman, Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones), and her fifteen months old daughter.

When Pyre’s investigation collides head-first with his faith, and overwhelming pressure by high level authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints begins to interfere with the case, the detective must decide where his loyalty ultimately rests.

The book Under The Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith was published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a branch of Penguin Random House, in 2004, with the San Francisco Chronicle comparing its importance in the genre to true crime classics, such as In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, and The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer. Nevertheless, this New York Times bestseller also became a sure target of criticism by the leadership of the Mormon church, most noticeably by then manager director of the Church History Department, Richard E. Turley, who criticized its historical accuracy and supposed lack of scientific methodology.

As a limited TV drama series, Under The Banner of Heaven was officially announced in June 2021, with Dustin Lance Black serving as executive-producer and screenwriter, and with Andrew Garfield and Daisy Edgar-Jones cast in the main roles.

HULU / Under The Banner of Heaven

Although sometimes heavy on exposition, Under The Banner of Heaven is a surprisingly fast-paced drama, and does a fantastic job connecting specifically violent moments throughout the origin of the Mormon church with the motivations behind the horrendous murder of Brenda Lafferty and her baby daughter.

Daisy Edgar-Jones almost literally pours out her soul in a crushing performance, using every single minute of her screen time to tell her character’s story, and denounce the general mistreatment of Mormon women. From microaggressions to verbal and physical abuse, Under the Banner of Heaven satisfyingly addresses the social expectations of being a female latter-day saint, even more so during episode 6, “Revelation”, written by Gina Welch and directed by Isabel Sandoval, in which Brenda approaches her church leaders to ask permission to divorce her husband, Allen (Billy Howle), but instead is emotionally black-mailed into staying, and charged with the “mission” of saving his family from eternal damnation. 

As for Andrew Garfield, the BAFTA and Golden Globes Awards winner delivers a breathtaking performance, perhaps the strongest of his life. His portrayal of detective Jeb Pyre is beyond nuanced, infused with tenderness and vulnerability, yet solid enough to be the grounded road where every single one of the storylines converges. The veracity with which Garfield portrays the painful spiritual transformation that his character goes through, from being a faithful member of his church, to completely questioning its most basic doctrines, is not only commendable but unforgettable.  

HULU / Under The Banner of Heaven

Moreover, Under The Banner of Heaven has a magnificent and extremely talented cast, with career defining performances by Gil Birmingham, Sam Worthington, Wyatt Russell, Chloe Pirrie and Denise Gough. Each one of these actors brings their best game, elevating their characters arc and stealing the spotlight whenever they’re on screen.

Daisy Edgar-Jones almost literally pours out her soul in a crushing performance

Under The Banner of Heaven is not an easy drama to watch. Just like most true crime series, this is a very gruesome and heavy show. Viewers should expect everything from blood, fowl language, off-screen animal violence, nudity, incest and rape. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should, if they choose to watch it, know that this is not a favorable show for their religion. However, it is a superb storytelling experience, and a television event, that fully pays off in the end. 

All the seven episodes of Under The Banner of Heaven are now available on Hulu.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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