It’s all too easy to imagine a version of “Under the Banner of Heaven” that fails. In adapting Jon Krakauer’s 2003 book for the screen, Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) had to delve into the horrific murder of a mother and child and untangle the clash between mainstream and fundamentalist Mormonism at its core. He also had to convey the importance of all the above to an audience that largely wouldn’t understand the context that comes from growing up Mormon, as Black himself did. The resulting limited series, an FX production that premieres April 28 on Hulu, took him 10 years to hone, which comes as no surprise. The mere task of figuring out how to transpose Krakauer’s version of events onto the screen would prove a challenge to anyone, let alone someone with such close personal ties to the material.
In the first five episodes made available for critics, Black’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” can sometimes feel like it’s overflowing with almost too much to say at the same time that it repeatedly hammers home established themes and character beats. But it also reframes the case with a deft and empathetic eye — and, in one particularly canny calculation, a crucial narrative gambit that quickly pays off.
The series takes on the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty (played here by Daisy Edgar-Jones of “Normal People”) and her infant daughter, which not only ripped apart their community, but revealed the rot at the core of her powerful in-laws. Headed up by imposing patriarch Ammon (Christopher Heyerdahl), the Laffertys’ particular brand of devout Mormonism curdled into a sinister ruthlessness that pit their many sons, convinced they were capital c Chosen, against the world. As Brenda’s grieving husband Allen (Billy Howie) tells it, his family grew suspicious of her determination to live her own life to the point that he couldn’t be entirely surprised when he found her mangled beyond recognition. The directing, as established in the first two episodes by David Mackenzie (“Hell or High Water”), errs towards the intimate over the sweeping, favoring shaky handheld close-ups and ever so slightly unnerving angles in wider frames to maintain a constant sense of unease.
There are two key ways the series approaches the case that make it stand out amongst the vast rest of TV’s true crime offerings. For one, there’s never much of a doubt who’s responsible for Brenda’s death (though I’ll spare you the details, and let you decide whether or not to open another browser tab for the answer). For another, its most central character is a complete fabrication that was created to both drive the show forward and reflect its most pressing motifs in his own bleeding conscience. This could’ve been a disaster; instead, it proves to be the show’s smartest decision by a mile.
Rather than choosing to tell the story through, for example, the eyes of a Krakauer facsimile (a la Netflix’s disastrous “Inventing Anna”), Black created a pair of detectives whose world views shape and inform the case at hand. Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) is a devout Mormon whose faith remains a pillar of his life, though an increasingly shaky one as the investigation forces him to confront the more insidious sides of the institution. His partner, Bill Taba (a perfectly wry Gil Birmingham), is a Native American who recently moved to Utah from Las Vegas, and is keenly aware of just how much he sticks out. Pyre and Taba could easily become a basic odd couple based on these descriptions, but Black is careful to establish a base level of mutual respect that keeps them from tipping over into cliché.
Garfield shoulders much of the show’s emotional burden as Jeb, a kind family man shattered by this slash of violence, finds himself questioning everything he thought he knew about the Mormon faith he holds so dear. He and his wife (Adelaide Clemens) have a genuine, loving marriage that they both credit to the church, and two young daughters ready to join. Rather than enlisting a total outsider to try to make sense of this particular murder, Black’s choice to center someone intimately familiar with the faith and church at hand keeps his “Under the Banner of Heaven” from inviting the audience to gawk at its world as if it were a zoo.
Pyre never gets the fire and brimstone kind of emotional beats that the Laffertys — especially elder sons Ron (Sam Worthington) and Dan (Wyatt Russell) — relish. But Garfield, a viscerally tender performer, nevertheless finds the right moments to let Jeb crack, just a little, in the face of such overwhelming ugliness. He is also able to sell some of the scripts’ most indulgent lines, which might have worked better as a theater monologue than from the mouth of an exhausted detective on a hyper-realistic television show.
Still: solving the case isn’t exactly the point of Black’s “Under the Banner of Heaven.” This version, careful and sometimes indulgent in sparing no detail, is far more concerned with creating a nuanced portrait of a family, the overarching institution that guided them, and the religion as a whole. In its most compelling moments, the show takes on the internal conflicts between duty and instinct that drive some to salvation and others to ruin. While Worthington struggles to keep a handle on Ron (and his Utahn accent) beyond his simmering anger, other actors make the most of this rich material. Aside from Garfield, standouts include Russell, who leans on his inherent charm to twist Dan’s affability into something far more poisonous and Chloe Pirrie as Matilda, Dan’s true believer wife whose slow-dawning terror imbues their storyline with an unbearable tension. In a more minor role, Rory Culkin briefly steals the spotlight as a Lafferty brother who spends his time in the police station bellowing scripture, until Pyre and Taba manage to surprise him into breaking the act.
The series also follows in Krakauer’s example by acting as an explainer of sorts for Mormonism writ large, weaving in historical flashbacks to Joseph Smith (Andrew Burnap) and his wife, Emma (Tyner Rushing), founding the religion, undergoing persecution, and eventually turning on each other, too. These interludes can be instructive, but rarely feel anything less than jarring even as Allen — valiantly acting as the link between past and present, and not much more — draws direct parallels between the Mormon origin story and his wife’s terrible place in its present. As for the frequent flashbacks to Brenda’s time meeting the Laffertys, and the Laffertys subsequently souring against her and everyone else outside their immediate circle, it’s unclear whether they’re filtered through the perspective of whoever’s talking to Jeb or borne entirely of Jeb himself. Defining that point of view every time might’ve been unwieldy, but it also could’ve sharpened the show’s perspective as a whole.
Barring a total collapse in the series’ final two episodes, though, it’s still impressive how much “Under the Banner of Heaven” takes on, and how much it does well. Its attempts to explain the most ephemeral aspects of a religion and its impact on the world surely won’t satisfy everybody, nor should they. As Jeb learns, it’s the collision between faith and fealty that proves most compelling, however painful it may be.
“Under the Banner of Heaven” premieres with two episodes on Thursday, April 28. Episodes will then be available to stream every Thursday on Hulu.