Plot is assigned a new task in ‘Under the Banner of Heaven.’
In FX on Hulu’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s 2003 classic, Andrew Garfield plays a conflicted investigator.
The horror of the tableaux before Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) is communicated via his responses as he walks into the murder scene of the double-homicide case that would swallow him up and spit him out as someone perhaps unrecognizable to himself. We see the first corpse, a young mother lying face down in a pool of blood in her kitchen. Before entering the nursery, Pyre girds himself. We can’t see what he does, but his reaction is sufficient. He averts his gaze, tears welling up in his eyes. He thinks to himself, “Evil.”
Pyre takes a few seconds to collect his thoughts before leaving his once-comfortable house in the Salt Lake City suburbs. A uniformed cop outside is much more agitated. When told to begin gathering evidence, he refuses, saying, “I don’t believe I can go back in.”
“Under the Banner of Heaven,” a somber and well-paced but structured seven-part miniseries based on Jon Krakauer’s 2003 true-crime novel about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ beginnings and recent history, premieres on FX on Hulu. Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones), the murdered lady, was the kind of person who might expect to fit perfectly in in her religious town. Brenda, the daughter of a bishop (a Mormon congregation’s leader), was a graduate of Brigham Young University, the church’s premier educational school, who didn’t envision herself doing anything other than becoming a mother. But the family she married into, dubbed the “Kennedys of Utah” by some, refused to recognize her as one of their own. She wasn’t from the area (she was from far-flung Idaho), and she desired to work in the male-dominated field of television news, even if just for a short time. Most heinous of all, she questioned the wisdom of her irresponsible and rambunctious husband, Allen (Billy Howle), and his five elder siblings on occasion.
In many ways, “Under the Banner of Heaven” is a fairly standard (albeit extensively dramatized) police procedural in which the investigator is shaken by a particularly troubling case. The older and grumpier Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), Pyre’s non-Mormon colleague, quickly accuses Allen, who is discovered covered in blood. Pyre is less certain, however his sympathies fade when he learns that Allen has abandoned his Mormon beliefs. Pyre starts to feel unmoored from the small-town community he’d never had cause to doubt before as he learns more about some of the Lafferty brothers’ conversion to fundamentalism — and the readiness of church leaders and everyone else to defend the family. Pyre, who is said to be a composite character, is shown as more than a little naïve about the people around him, whose most heinous actions and darkest inclinations shouldn’t surprise a detective.
Unlike Krakauer, who received harsh criticism from the church for his book, Dustin Lance Black was reared as a Mormon. (Black, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for “Milk,” also wrote a few episodes of HBO’s fundamentalist polygamy drama “Big Love.”) Because of Black’s background, the TV version places a strong emphasis on the distinctions between mainstream Mormonism and its fundamentalist offshoots. The miniseries plays out like a Mormon Gothic, with average people providing cover for the “fundies” in this instance. The atmosphere becomes thicker and more fetid as some of the Laffertys persuade themselves that they’ve discovered the genuine gospel, which involves some fairly Old Testament customs. Modern irritants, such as taxation, induce a deeper retreat into persecution fantasies, which are only realized when the law is broken.
“Under the Banner of Heaven” is at its most riveting when it delves into the events that led to the Lafferty family’s conversion and deftly concludes that there is no one cause for it. The abuse of the Lafferty patriarch’s sons is also to blame, since it normalizes domestic violence. The wider religious expectation of wifely subordination is a factor, with elder brothers Ron (Sam Worthington) and Dan (Wyatt Russell) becoming enraged when their opinions are challenged by individuals they feel beneath them (a.k.a., women). Then there’s the turn a blind eye on bruised cheeks, excessive speech, and other warning signs by neighbors and fellow worshipers.
Black wants the audience to understand where the complicit come from. The miniseries regularly returns to pivotal events in Mormon history, such as when Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were confronted with violent resistance and early believers were killed for their religion. However, Black may be presuming too much familiarity with these characters on the side of viewers, and the moments distract from the primary plot line’s pace — at least in the first five episodes viewed for reviewers. Pyre’s crisis of faith and difficult home life grow less fascinating as the Laffertys get more militant. The sight of men so enamored with uncontested, godlike power that they end up killing their own families outweighs the protagonist’s marital quarrels, who is never permitted to be anything other than a hero. Garfield’s character’s sensitivity and existential wounded are revealed, but it’s Howle who serves as the series’ emotional center.
Black has said in interviews that he does not anticipate his program to be well-received by Mormons. He does, however, take care to illustrate parts of Mormon life that are realistic or softly amusing. Pyre isn’t the only police officer who prays at his workplace. Taba will — or will not — cuss around his lover depending on his mood. At one point, Pyre admonishes, “Language, please!” As he and Taba move closer to the type of folks armed and ready to protect their way of life, Pyre understands how to maneuver around the more anti-law-enforcement characters as a state agent — even when he’s out of his depth.
Despite the fact that the miniseries takes place in the same year as “Ghostbusters” and “Purple Rain,” there are few clear references to the mid-1980s in the production. The choice to downplay the time period implies that we’re supposed to think of this as a timeless narrative, which it is in many respects. It’s a little irritating that the majority of the show’s feminist criticisms are delivered by dads of girls, such as Pyre and Allen – the safest and most conservative appeal for compassion possible (though Brenda gets a few lines herself in flashbacks). But there’s something unsettling about the series’ depiction of a close-knit society that does precisely what it’s supposed to do: protects its most prominent members from punishment at the price of their victims. Names, appearances, and beliefs may change, but the need to protect the powerful remains all too strong.