First things first: forgive the title.
In case the reference didn’t resonate with you, “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” is a popular song from the Tony-winning Broadway musical The Book of Mormon. One of the very few issues I have with FX’s new Mormon faith-based limited series Under the Banner of Heaven is that I cannot watch it without thinking of The Book of Mormon. It is my issue, clearly, but every time star Andrew Garfield refers to “Heavenly Father,” I giggle. Matt Stone, Robert Lopez, and Trey Parker created something so hummable, so catchy, that it burrows directly into your subconscious, never letting go.
Correcting that issue is not why Under the Banner of Heaven exists, of course. But the new limited series goes a long way toward making receptive audiences see Mormonism as something more than the butt of a joke. Based on the three episodes I’ve seen, Heaven is a thoughtful, complex, at-times terrifying in unexpected ways, and brilliantly made rumination on the conflicts between sects of the Mormon faith as told through the guise of a true crime murder mystery.
Based on the celebrated book by Jon Krakauer, Heaven stars Andrew Garfield in a deeply, quietly accomplished performance as Detective (Brother) Jeb Pyre. Pyre investigates the brutal slaying of young Mormon wife Benda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her toddler daughter. Initial suspicion points to Brenda’s husband Allen (Billy Howle), but the case quickly becomes a much broader investigation, eventually touching on deep fissures between mainstream and fundamentalist Mormon believers. Much of the investigation centers around the Lafferty family in which four brothers — Allen (Howle), Ron (Sam Worthington), Dan (Wyatt Russell), Samuel (Rory Culkin), and Robin (Seth Numrich) — jockey for power.
The unabashed exploration of faith and Mormon history sets this story apart from the current onslaught of true crime limited series. Garfield’s Pyre balances between the rule of law and the rule of Heavenly Father, a struggle that eventually begins to cause an internal crisis of faith. Garfield captures this crisis in an exceptionally detailed and realistic way. He’s still a super nice guy who lives by his very deep faith, but he has questions, most of which don’t offer easy answers. To me, Heaven excels because it allows time for this investigation of faith to take place, rather than uniquely focusing on the crime itself. There are long stretches of monologues that, at times, reference back to the very foundation of the Mormon faith by Joseph Smith. Most of these moments are accompanied by visual flashbacks, a necessary choice that helps address some of the more didactic moments in the script.
Aside from its exploration of faith, Heaven is also a miracle of performances. Ensemble series are very much in vogue right now, and you should add this to the list. Actors playing the Lafferty family feel close to each other. They’re a tight-knit family unit, and the performances fully reflect that. Father Ammon Lafferty is played by Christopher Heyerdahl who gives an uneasy performance that fills you with dread. It keeps the actors playing his sons, I suspect, ill at ease throughout the entire series.
As a result, most of the brothers give twitchy, intense, and aggressive performances. Standouts include Howle’s grief-stricken Allen and Russell’s vengeful, rage-filled Dan. Dan’s narrative, in particular, compels as it represents a long-standing branch of Americans who, driven by faith among other things, want to strike out against the government and a system of taxation they believe to be deeply unfair. At the core of Heaven lives a family whose faith so strongly resonates that the laws of man pale against the laws of Heavenly Father. That struggle, that push and pull in a system they deem deeply unfair, ultimately unwinds itself in the brutal slaying of Brenda.
If a frank exploration of faith doesn’t interest, then perhaps Under the Banner of Heaven won’t appeal to you. Yet, Heaven distinguishes itself to receptive audiences in its serious exploration of the Mormon faith that avoids the standard jokes. There are no singing and tap-dancing boys going on their mission to Uganda. There are real people embracing faith, questioning faith, and letting faith blind them to humanity. Despite a handful of minor flaws, the series emerges as one of the most compelling explorations of modern faith that I’ve ever seen.
Under the Banner of Heaven drops on FX starting Thursday, April 28.