Under The Banner Of Heaven Review: Andrew Garfield's Stunning Crisis Of Faith Steadies An Uneven Murder Mystery

With true crime continuing its media takeover and murder mysteries leading the prestige drama charge, the idea of a series kicking off with a dead body has become a given. Sure enough, "Under The Banner of Heaven" touts all the trappings we've become used to: a small-town community shaken to its core, a grizzly murder based in real life, brooding landscapes with the sun peeking just over the horizon and at the center of it all, one man caught in a crisis state. But rather than following all this familiarity down its expected rabbit hole — a headfirst dive into the mysterious possibilities — the search for the killer is merely a jumping-off point in this story.

An adaptation of Jon Krakauer's best-selling nonfiction book of the same name, "Under The Banner of Heaven" is first and foremost a blistering look at family and faith, delving into the fundamentalist Mormon orthodoxy that fueled the murder of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month old baby, Erica. Surface-level questions take a backseat to the existential dread caused by the tragedy: what could spur such sickening actions? How could anyone possibly justify such horrors? And where does faith fit into it? If it's a quick-moving crime thriller you're looking for, then take a moment to adjust those expectations. "Under The Banner of Heaven" has a murder to solve, but its primary mystery is the Lafferty family, their troubling connection to the case, and how exactly faith can spiral into savage fanaticism.

A story of violent faith

Like Krakauer's book, "Under The Banner of Heaven" is rooted in true events — and not just the grisly double murder. The two also blend in the origin and evolution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), arguing that one story could not exist without the other — after all, the very same beliefs that are core to the Church's establishment will later spur the actions of killers who claim a revelation from God as their motive. Not stopping there, this adaptation adds a third element to ground us in something more tangible — this is where Andrew Garfield comes in. After a single episode, you might think his Jeb Pyre is an intrinsic part of this story simply because it's hard to imagine it without him. But the devout Mormon detective investigating the crime is an invention for the show to shepherd us through the story. It's through his investigation that answers begin to unspool and while it's a pleasure to have him stitched into the story, the seams are certainly visible.

Jeb is joined on his hunt for answers by his partner, a Native American non-Mormon named Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), and together, they are our twin anchors. Bill offers an outside perspective — new to the community and this particulate force, but well-versed in the horrors of humanity after years as a detective. But Jeb is our gateway to the community. He's brushed shoulders with the Laffertys, remembers the days when they were well-respected and like the rest of the community, and is thoroughly rocked by the details of the case. The Lafferty story plays out entirely without him — retold in flashbacks, along with the establishment of the church — but when we return to him, Garfield is the story's emotional core. From the onset, when Jeb first steps into the crime scene to find Brenda and her baby girl with slashed throats, his response is visceral. TV has certainly made it easy to brush off such horrors — how many murder mysteries can you binge before coming completely desensitized? — but "Under The Banner of Heaven" has no interest in sensationalizing the deaths nor brushing them aside. Jeb himself, experienced detective be damned, is weighed down by the tragedy from the second he sees it. He wells up and despite some open tears, never quite finds relief as he digs in deeper.

Firing on (most) fronts

It won't surprise you to learn that recent Oscar-nominee Andrew Garfield is impeccable as ever. We've seen Garfield in much flashier roles before (see: "Tick, Tick... BOOM!") and Jeb is comparatively understated — but still, emotions ripple across Garfield's face to breathtaking effect. Jeb is in the midst of a crisis that strikes deep and his invention here, removed from the book, pays off well for the series.

Garfield certainly isn't the only one delivering. Daisy Edgar Jones, as the deceased Brenda Lafferty, appears to us in flashback scenes that flesh out the buildup to her murder. In her occasional moments onscreen she's absolutely magnetic, which is fitting for the ambitious Brenda, who captures the attention of a young Lafferty son but doesn't quite mesh with the family values. Wyatt Russell makes a meal of being despicable as Dan Lafferty, the aspiring patriarch of the family whose ego overtakes his faith. And Bill Birmingham, though often in the backseat, is another steadying force. Across the board, the performances land powerfully — but not everything falls into place so easily.

The struggle of "Under The Banner" is weaving its pieces together — the moody crime saga, the faith-based exploration, the historical context, and its complex moral themes. You might think leaping between the timelines would keep things moving but the slow-burn pacing dips into sluggish at times, as we inch towards developments. In rare moments you can forgive the clunkiness when it briefly attains its ambitious goals: Dustin Lance Black's characters reveal themselves in stunning monologues and hostile confrontations. Or in small moments when the rigid patriarchal structures are exposed, tearing at Brenda and her fellow Lafferty sisters-in-law. 

Director David Mackenzie guides us from a visual perspective, pushing us to ruminate on the darkness of the otherwise serene Salt Lake Valley community and emphasizing Pyre's internal conflict. All the ingredients are present, but never quite mesh together. "Under The Banner of Heaven" is grappling with so much and clearly has a handle on the insights this story offers, but at least in the first five episodes made available to critics, the pacing is a fatal flaw. This is the true existential crisis — how can such a well-made show get so much right and elude the necessary element of keeping its audience engaged? Much of its winning qualities end up overshadowed by the rest of the series, which seems to drone endlessly and lose itself (or perhaps just its viewers) along the way.

"Under The Banner of Heaven" debuts on Hulu on April 28, 2022.