FX adapts Jon Krakauer’s best selling true story about a brutal crime tied to the Mormon church
Chances are that if you know any Mormons at all, they’re far more likely to be ex-Mormons. Despite claims that the Mormon Church is one of the fastest growing religions in the United States (source: the Mormon Church), in reality, like most organized religions in America, membership has been on a steady decline for the past decade. Along with the same issues other churches face, the Latter Day Saints also suffer from years of bad P.R., forever associated with magic underwear, child brides, and polygamy, though the latter two aren’t permitted within the modern Mormon Church, and haven’t been since the 19th century. Every church has its members who take things a little too literally, however, and that occasionally results in tragedy, as illustrated by FX’s docudrama Under the Banner of Heaven, a chilling true story about death and faith.
Based on Jon Krakauer’s 2003 book, the miniseries opens with the gruesome murder of Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her 15 month-old daughter Erica, stabbed to death in their home. Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), a composite of several real-life detectives on the case, is assigned to the case with his more seasoned partner Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), and, like the victim, is a devout Mormon. Jeb is soft-spoken, weeps at the crime scene, and gently chastises Bill for cursing in front of him. He seems far too sensitive for his job, and yet he’s also serious and determined, as dedicated to upholding the law as he is to his faith, although he’ll soon learn that some of his fellow Latter Day Saints strongly believe that one far outweighs the other.
Brenda, a former beauty queen with aspirations of becoming a television reporter, married into the Lafferty family, described as “the Utah Kennedys” and headed by the pious Ammon Lafferty (Christopher Heyerdahl). Suspicion immediately falls on Brenda’s husband, and Ammon’s youngest son, Allen (Billy Howle), who discovered the bodies. However, he points the finger both at the Mormon Church, and his massive family, though he initially stops short at specifically accusing anyone, instead weaving a story of the events leading up to Brenda’s murder into the baffling, sinister history of the church, and its tenets of protecting faith and family at all costs, even if shedding blood is required. “If you still believe that your God is love, then you don’t know who you are,” Allen says to Jeb, mocking his naive devotion.
In flashbacks, we see Brenda’s in-laws initially treat her as a sort of fascinating alien, before turning on her, threatened by her modern rebellious ways, “rebellious” meaning she asks questions and politely suggests that maybe brother-in-law Dan’s (Wyatt Russell) plan to run for political office on the platform of abolishing all Constitutional amendments after the first ten might not be such a good idea. She’s the only one who has any sense, as it turns out, as Dan, and oldest brother Ron (Sam Worthington), largely to escape having to pay taxes (and so Dan can explore polygamy, long abolished by the church), influence the other Lafferty siblings to take their wives and go live off the grid as fundamentalists, taking everything the Book of Mormon says literally, particularly the concept of “blood atonement,” or murdering a perceived sinner in the name of the Lord.
At the top of the Lafferty brothers’ kill list, along with church elders they believed turned their backs on the true believers of the Mormon faith: the innocent Brenda, and her baby.
Despite the strange mysticism and secrecy of the Mormon Church, Under the Banner of Heaven is a straightforward murder mystery, without the expected supernatural elements of, say, season one of True Detective. It doesn’t need additional bells and whistles to make it creepy: it’s right there even in the early scenes of the Lafferty family. Everything about them feels phony and forced, and no amount of homemade lemonade and talk of love and togetherness can shake a palpable undercurrent of hostility and distrust, even towards each other. Though Ron and Dan are the ringleaders, all of the brothers (not to mention some of their wives) are equally unstable and dangerous. Even the less fanatic Allen seems not quite on this Earth, inexplicably going forward with marrying Brenda despite knowing that his family considered her an unwelcome interloper, and thus putting her in danger.
In contrast, there’s Detective Jeb, gentle as a lamb, and devoted to his wife Becca (Adelaide Clemens), two young daughters, and dementia-stricken mother in a way that the Laffertys would view as an affront to their shared religion. As the case unfolds, Jeb struggles not just with his faith in terms of how a just God could allow something so awful to happen, but in the chilly reception and passive-aggressive remarks about praying for his “confusion” by other members of the church once it gets out. It seems that justice for Brenda and her baby is less important than protecting the Church’s image, and hiding from the outside world the existence of fundamentalist outliers like Ron and Dan.
Those who found the long, colorful passages about the history of Mormonism the best part of Krakauer’s book might be a bit disappointed in the TV adaptation, as that’s mostly limited to snippets used to bolster Allen’s jailhouse rantings. The costume drama look of these moments doesn’t always work with the chilly present scenes, but it does leave one wanting a companion film elaborating on those passages. Other than that, Under the Banner of Heaven, written by Dustin Lance Black, while revealing early on who’s responsible for Brenda’s murder, keeps tensions high by taking its time tracking down all the various Lafferty brothers (including Seth Numrich and a ferocious Rory Culkin), as well as everyone else on their lengthy kill list. Even if you’re read the book and know how things turned out for everyone involved, it’s still a gripping, hold-your-breath watch.
While Sam Worthington struggles with a Utah-by-way-of-east-Texas accent, Wyatt Russell, all maniacal grins and tetchy body language, dominates every time he’s on screen. Perhaps the scariest scene that doesn’t involve actually killing anyone is when he tries to talk his long-suffering wife (Chloe Pirrie) into polygamy with all the charm and smarm of a vacuum cleaner salesman, before quickly flying into a rage when she gives the slightest of pushbacks. This is nicely balanced by Andrew Garfield, who can barely be heard in some scenes. Much of Garfield’s work is internal here: the shock and heartbreak at Jeb’s realization that his beloved church is acting directly against his investigation into the brutal death of a woman and her child comes through in his eyes.
The mere thought that he even has to question anything about his faith and those he’s been taught to obey causes Jeb so much grief he can hardly bring himself to speak about it. It’s an excellent performance, acting as the flipside of Wyatt Russell as Dan, two men worshiping the same God, one’s hands washed in righteousness and love, the other’s soaked with blood.
Under the Banner of Heaven premieres today on Hulu.