With any true-crime drama, facts and fictions are hard to discern and, if you look deeper, the grey areas grow and grow. As an atheistic critic, the Mormon murder series Under the Banner of Heaven feels like a more nuanced vision of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). But many in the religion have disagreed.
Writer/creator Dustin Lance Black – a former member of the church – doesn’t plunge the LDS into malevolent darkness, but certain Mormons have taken issue with how they're represented. The Atlantic writer McKay Coppins melodramatically claims the series is 'one of the most openly hostile treatments of a minority religious group to appear in popular American entertainment this century'.
But it’s exactly these predictable controversies that make this type of series a curious rarity. Not just in terms of Mormonism, but in the suggestion that religion is at least partly responsible for certain heinous deeds. Black doesn’t push this latter point too far: he empathetically differentiates between moderates and fundamentalists, or ‘fundies’, but he also examines the similarities between them.
Gil Birmingham and Andrew Garfield as detectives Bill and Jeb. Photo: Disney/Getty
Based on the book by Jon Krakauer, the series takes place in 80s Utah when a 24-year-old Mormon housewife Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her 15-month-old daughter are found murdered. The fictionalised detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), a devout LDS member, investigates the case with his non-religious, Native American partner Bill (Gil Birmingham). Jeb’s a family man, a lovely husband, and he's endearingly paternal. Given Garfield’s youthful appeal, he’s surprisingly convincing in the role.
When interviewing Brenda’s husband Allen (an always underrated Billy Howle), Jeb discovers the culprits are inside the LDS community rather than outside – testing the limits of his lifelong faith.
Left to right: Sam Worthington, Denise Gough, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Billy Howle as Ron, Dianna, Brenda and Allen Lafferty. Photo: Disney/Getty
Although time-jumping has become an overused trope in the genre, Under the Banner of Heaven approaches the method more inventively. Jeb and Bill investigate the murders, leading them to the broader Lafferty clan. The narrative fractures into flashbacks of this expansive and complicated family, who live like a creepy, conservative sect of libertarians who despise taxes, fees, and any form of government intrusion.
The changing times and attitudes – especially towards women, treated with friendly smiles and misogynistic disdain – don’t affect their stances, inspired by LDS founder Joseph Smith. They’re their own cult. In fact, the scenes where Brenda is introduced to the family recall the sunshine dining of Ari Aster’s folk-horror film Midsommar. But Brenda doesn’t completely submit to their ways. She’s an outspoken, feministic influence that the congregation, especially the men, view with intense cynicism.
The third timeline, running alongside the others, flashes back 150 years to the origins of the faith. These historical scenes initially see Joseph Smith as a sympathetic hero, imagined as such (it seems) by Jeb as he listens to Allen Lafferty. But as Allen and Jeb confirm unsettling truths about Smith, those visions begin to shift their loyalties. As well as providing a necessary, accessible method for explaining the relevant history, it’s also an excellent way to portray Jeb’s shifting psychology.
Black neglects to mention the scepticism around Smith’s supposed revelations when writing the Book of Mormon, but perhaps that’s a concession. He clearly wants nuance more than mockery.
Despite the scrutinies from LDS members, Under the Banner of Heaven is a darkly fascinating crime drama that pokes holes in supposedly moral institutions. This critic wanted more time with Brenda, as Edgar-Jones portrays her with such infectious spirit – like the modern revolutionary that every faith needs. But Garfield is never tiring to follow, his character filled with such love and fury to which a lot of TV detectives – drowning in alcohol and nihilism – should aspire.
Under the Banner of Heaven is available on Disney+ from Wednesday 27 July.
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27 Jul 22 – 27 Jul 23, ON DISNEY PLUS
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