Religious fervour, messianic Mormons and a bleak tale of true crime await audiences in Under the Banner of Heaven — an adaptation of the book by Jon Krakauer — which premieres on Disney+ from 27 July.
Brought to life by Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk), this expansive murder mystery feels like True Detective by way of Harrison Ford headliner Witness, focusing as it does on the close-knit community of a Latter-day Saints congregation, dominated by the Lafferty clan.
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Unfortunately, this overly wrought exposition heavy drama gets bogged down by its reliance on historical flashbacks early on, foregoing any momentum in the process.
Watch a trailer for Under the Banner of Heaven
One night in 1984 Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) and his partner Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham) are called to investigate a disturbance, where the body of Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is found brutally murdered. Within minutes of the discovery her husband Allen (Billy Howle) turns up wearing a shirt soaked in blood, before descending into hysteria at the thought of his wife having been butchered mere inches away.
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With executive producers including David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water), Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and Jason Bateman (Ozark) all on board, this show is not short of heavyweight creatives. If audiences also take into consideration the presence of Wyatt Russell (The Good Lord Bird), Christopher Heyerdahl (Chapelwaite) and an underrated Sam Worthington (Avatar) there is an equally savage ensemble on screen as well.
In terms of sheer presence, Under the Banner of Heaven can never be accused of not taking itself seriously. With Garfield and Birmingham in charismatic form, these partners in crime dive deep into the Mormon community, and prove to be very adept at looking after their own interests. As every avenue of investigation only leads deeper down the religious rabbit hole, Jeb comes up against more and more opposition.
For the most part everything occurs in flashback, from Brenda’s introduction to the Lafferty family, through to any motivations for murder that this expansive clan might possess. Segues involving anti-tax law demonstrations, parades for public office and further time jumps featuring the Mormon founder Joseph Smith also add to the confusion.
However, amongst the atmospheric digressions into the past, Dustin Lance Black weaves a sorry tale of blind faith which possesses some potency. Similar in many ways to the Armish, who isolate themselves from external stimuli as a means to maintain purity amongst their brethren. Mormons demonstrate an equally singular perspective on the world, which non-believers might consider old-fashioned or medieval.
Much of the problem with this show comes down to pacing, as an excessive amount of exposition grinds everything to a halt. Meaning that dramatic revelations lack impact, confrontations fall short – while pulses rarely race as a result. However, what this series does do is offer audiences the opportunity to discuss belief systems and their place in contemporary society.
Stand outs beyond Garfield and Birmingham include Rory Culkin as Samuel, Wyatt Russell as Dan and Sam Worthington as big brother Ron. Christopher Heyerdahl also deserves a special mention as patriarch Amman, who rules with both metaphorical rods of iron and an unrelenting line in family humiliation. He keeps each of his children in check with the threat of retribution for any transgressions which might conflict with the word of God.
Another problem which rears its ugly head comes down to narrative focus, as audiences are frequently pulled away from dramatic scenes for additional history lessons. Where Joseph Smith (Andrew Burnap) and his wife Emma (Tyner Rushing) provide perspective for something which is playing out in the here and now. This not only drastically slows down the story, but worse yet, does so for seemingly superfluous reasons.
Under the Banner of Heaven has so much detail jam-packed into its running time, that the hook people should connect with gets lost. Audiences should feel appalled by the brutal murder of a mother and child, who had committed no crime other than to raise their voice against the community. That is where the real tragedy of this show should live and breathe, yet too often it feels like those emotions are watered down.
Dustin Lance Black may have populated his extravagant canvas with well defined characters, who succeed in conveying the inner turmoil of their own lives, yet rarely does that connection extend to audiences. For a companion piece which deals more openly with the conflict of closed communities and blinkered belief systems, audiences might want to watch Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning instead.
Another story of human weakness defined through suffering, that cleverly connects with audiences in a way that this densely plotted true crime drama rarely does.
Under the Banner of Heaven is available to stream in full on Disney+ from 27 July. Watch a clip below.