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Under the Banner of Heaven review: A gripping crime thriller

Under the Banner of Heaven does not open at the beginning, or at the end, but in the middle. The scripted true-crime series starts with its lead detective, Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), being called to investigate the murders of Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a young Mormon mother, and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica. Moments later, Jeb arrests the woman’s husband, Allen (Billy Howle), after discovering him standing across the street from his home, covered in the blood of his loved ones.

From there, Under the Banner of Heaven, which is based on Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction novel of the same name, begins to move forward and backward in time until three separate, ongoing timelines emerge. The first timeline takes place in 1984 and follows Jeb as he launches his own investigation into Brenda and Erica’s murders. The second begins a few years before then and showcases the events that led up to the crime that opens the show. The third, however, is set over a hundred years before the rest of the show and explores the origins of the very Mormon beliefs that may have played a role in Brenda and Erica’s murders.

The series’ split timeline structure may make it sound like it’s stealing a page out of True Detective‘s playbook, but Under the Banner of Heaven is not interested in time for the same reasons its HBO predecessor is. For Under the Banner of Heaven, showcasing the passage of time is what allows it to explore the violence that inevitably erupts when a community finds itself torn between matters of fundamentalism and progressivism.

The questions that matter

Andrew Garfield stands in front of a police station window in Under the Banner of Heaven.
Michelle Faye/FX

It’s Garfield’s Jeb who finds himself at the center of that conflict. A devout Mormon, Jeb’s beliefs are thrown into question early on in Under the Banner of Heaven’s premiere when Howle’s Allen warns Jeb’s partner, a non-Mormon detective named Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), that they’ll have an easier time solving his wife and child’s murders if they look within Jeb’s own religious community. It’s a piece of advice that Jeb initially reacts to with vitriol and judgment, but it doesn’t take long before he begins to realize that Allen may be right.

Garfield has more experience playing a man torn between two worlds than just about any other actor of his generation, which makes him the perfect man to play Jeb. Over the course of the show’s episodes, Garfield never overplays Jeb’s growing uncertainty about his faith or the pain he feels about having to question his religious leaders. The star is one of the most expressive and openly vulnerable actors we have right now, but his performance in Under the Banner of Heaven perfectly rides the line between raw and stoic, torn and steadfast.

Jeb’s inner conflict also makes him the perfect partner for Birmingham’s Bill, an out-of-towner who is forced to partner with a man whose faith he doesn’t understand. His outsider perspective allows Bill to challenge Jeb’s instincts in several critical moments, but as more time goes on, it’s Bill’s confidence as a lawman that makes him someone Jeb can actually lean on for support. Birmingham has long been one of Hollywood’s great character actors, and he brings an indispensable presence to Under the Banner of Heaven. Together, he and Garfield create one of the most memorable TV detective duos in recent memory.

A crisis of faith

Daisy Edgar-Jones stands with a hand on her hip in Under the Banner of Heaven.
Michelle Faye/FX

For her part, Daisy Edgar-Jones plays Brenda, the young victim at the center of Under the Banner of Heaven’s story, as an optimistic and kind-hearted woman without ever making her come across as foolish or naïve. She highlights the character’s strength whenever she can and, in doing so, keeps her from feeling like a helpless victim despite her role in the show’s mystery. Wyatt Russell, meanwhile, turns in a memorably unhinged performance — similar to the one he gave in last year’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier — as Dan Lafferty, one of Brenda’s nefarious brothers-in-law.

Behind the scenes, creator Dustin Lance Black brings a steady and precise hand to the show’s tricky material. Black’s scripts brim with sadness and anger, but they don’t ever resort to cheap, exploitative tricks in order to keep viewers emotionally engaged. Instead, he lets characters like Jeb and Allen wear their emotions on their sleeves and then forces them to be in the same room with each other. It’s a decision that allows the show’s themes to emerge through Jeb and Allen’s numerous police station conversations, which frequently blur the line between interrogation and theological debate.

The show’s split-timeline structure can occasionally feel unwieldy and repetitive, but when it works — and it often does — it results in Under the Banner of Heaven achieving a scope that feels all-encompassing and intimate at the same time. That is, in no small part, thanks to Black’s decision to root many of the show’s flashback sequences in Allen’s present-day pain, with Howle giving a stunningly raw performance as Brenda’s heartbroken, regretful husband.

In the face of cruelty

Gil Birmingham holds a police radio in Under the Banner of Heaven.
Michelle Faye/FX

Ultimately, what makes Under the Banner of Heaven stand out from the rest of the true-crime crowd is its overwhelming feeling of empathy. The series’ first installment takes viewers to the scene of Brenda and Erica’s murders within its first 10 minutes, but the exploration of it never feels exploitative or gratuitous. Instead, the episode’s director, David Mackenzie, handles the scene with real care — showing only a few brief glimpses of blood and, in several fleeting instances, Brenda’s feet on her kitchen floor.

Rather than relying on the gruesome details of Brenda’s murder, Mackenzie spends most of the sequence focused on Garfield’s face as he makes his way through the crime scene. Garfield has always been a highly emotive performer, and his facial reactions to what he’s seeing are powerful enough to communicate the gravity of the show’s central crimes. The scene is a master class in how to sensitively handle a visual adaptation of a true-crime case.

It comes to an end when Jeb eventually stumbles out of Brenda’s house, only to find another distraught officer sitting on the porch. Resting his hand on his colleague’s shoulder, Jeb says a line that might as well be the mission statement for Under the Banner of Heaven as a whole. “Gather yourself,” he says. “For their sake.” What follows is an imperfect true-crime drama that manages to justify its importance without losing sight of the real-life tragedy at the heart of its story.

FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven premieres with its first two episodes on Thursday, April 28 on Hulu. Digital Trends was given early access to the show’s first five episodes.

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