Under the Banner of Heaven

4 out of 5

Created by: Dustin Lance Black

covers season 1

Though very flawed in some of its storytelling approaches and casting choices, limited series Under the Banner of Heaven – a fiction wrapping for the nonfiction book by Jon Krakauer – manages to overcome these limitations thanks to an incredibly strong (if undeniably slanted) point of view and a script that approaches that carefully, and amazing central performances. On the one hand, this renders the resolution of the crime – the brutal murder of a Mormon wife and daughter – as almost an afterthought; at the same time, that seems “right”: it doesn’t minimize the tragedy, because it explores and condemns the motivations behind it; it doesn’t make entertainment out of the tragedy by turning it into a whodunnit. It puts all of its tension and attentions into really peeling away at faith, and what happens when one’s central tenets are truly tested: investigating the murder in a very traditionalist Mormon Utah town is LDS Detective Jeb (Andrew Garfield) and his oft-persecuted-by-the-locals Paiute partner Bill (Gil Birmingham); when the perpetrators are likely to be sons from a powerful local family, drawing inspiration from the more hardline Fundamentalist LDS beliefs – beliefs which Jeb comes to learn have informed his own – the cracks between needing to solve the case, and needing to maintain some type of civility with his faith and the church start to grow.

The slanted point of view is very much an anti-Mormon one. While there’s room allowed for some positive sides of the practice, that’s mixed in moreso with praising faith in general; creator Dustin Lance Black puts forward a lot of Mormon history to explain what (in the narrative’s point of view) shaped the church, and the perhaps thin lines between FLDS practices and LDS ones, and so ultimately picking out any support that remains for Mormonism in general becomes difficult. That said, it’s not an all-out attack from the start, and that’s one of the show’s strengths: by having Jeb be a faithful man, with a faithful wife and daughters about to be inducted into the fold, the show can’t just burn its bridge right away, and patiently uses Jeb’s investigation – questioning members of the Lafferty family, various brothers of which becomes the accused at different points – to justifiably have him dig deeper into what drove the killer or killers, and be puzzled by the resistance he encounters when some questions have to be asked of church superiors as well.

Bill also isn’t misused as some Indian wise-man – his role in matters is complete, firstly as a co-detective whom Jeb realizes he can trust to not have biased point of view, and then as a friend when things start to get more emotionally complex.

But there are a lot of characters the show must cycle through (large families, many names), and it is odd right up front when the first witness / suspect interrogation launches into historical flashback, setting up scenarios where 30 minutes are taken up by what we have to assume is just someone explaining Mormon history to those in the room. It’s… definitely not immersive. But it’s undeniably interesting, and while maybe bias (though I won’t say I doubt the history, or disagree with Black’s take), it’s presented in such a way as to encourage one’s own research – it’s not overloaded with facts so as to become a documentary, and does leave some details purposefully vague, encouraging one to take up their own researchings to fill in the gaps, if desired. And unfortunately, some of the key antagonists just can’t carry the weight of their roles: Wyatt Russell, Billy Howle and Rory Culkin all come across like they’re play-acting parts, especially when wigs and excessive beards come into the picture. This seems like an affect of being based-on-facts – trying to get characterizations down – which also results in some random seeming elements being tossed in there just because, I assume, they were part of the official record.

However, combatting this are Garfield and Brimingham, both simply stunning to watch – Garfield representation of Jeb’s crises of faith is stunning – and though Sam Worthington has gotten slack over the years for being rather milquetoast, I’d say that’s a consequence of being cast as a leading man. Here, as another Lafferty brother, he’s the strongest of that troupe, using his average Joe nature effectively, which makes his eventual place in the narrative even more impactful. Also notable are all the LDS wives, playing different notes on a scale of cult-ish devotion; frightening to watch.

And these actors, and the gripping, emotional navigation through the story, make the series into one of the few recent true crime dramatizations to feel like it has a reason to exist beyond distraction. Some of these have had interesting points of view, but the intentions are unclear, or the shows get caught up in twists and turns unnecessarily. Under the Banner of Heave absolutely has a point of view, and though its directness might turn some viewers off, it uses its 7-episode runtime to deliver its argument with often stunning effectiveness.