Tuesday, July 5, 2022

‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ Review: Compelling Script and First-Class Acting Delivers New Standard for True Crime

FX’s limited series Under the Banner of Heaven has finished its seven episode run, bringing the jaw-dropping true crime story to a close. While the story told across this limited series is devastating and can be hard to watch, this is a series I recommend everyone give a chance — particularly if you like true crime.

Based on the non-fiction book of the same name, Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, this series tells the true story of how a devout detective’s faith is tested as he investigates a shocking double homicide that seems to be connected to an esteemed Utah family, who have begun to spiral into LDS fundamentalism due to their distrust in the government. Initially planned as a film, allowing this story to spread its wings over seven full-length episodes rather than one feature film was the right move to make on FX’s part. Each episode is a bounty of heart-wrenching storytelling and content that will leave you reflective about the effects of radical religion and toxic masculinity found in indoctrinated systems.

The series consistently provides stunning visuals, and the visuals being paired with a compelling and emotional script only serves to further the storytelling more. Every word spoken and every shot in the series effectuates the exact feelings that you’d hope to feel — and should feel — when watching a story as mortifying as this one. This series is deeply intellectual and will encourage you to be honest with yourself and ask questions about the horrific parts of humanity, but ultimately the creative team clearly worked to inspire visceral reactions in their viewers — a goal that they absolutely delivered on.

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One of the most important aspects of the series is that the creative team treated the victims of these real-life heinous crimes with respect and care as they told their story. Often, it can feel like content from the true-crime genre gains viewership by focusing on the perpetrators’ actions rather than telling the victims’ stories — and this is not the case with Under the Banner of Heaven. This series doesn’t just show the end of Brenda’s life, it tells and shows who she was — before and after the Lafferty family sunk their metaphorical teeth into her. While the series explores the toxic masculinity and violence that is often found in fundamentalist LDS circles, the creative team was respectful with the approach here as well and never came across like they were seeking to vilify the church as a whole, only attempting to shine a light on what lurks in the dark — it vilifies the people who use the church as a way to get others to do horrible things.

Every single member of this cast showed up intent on providing performances that will be remembered, and it shows. Andrew Garfield has once again demonstrated his capabilities as an actor as the series’ male lead, Detective Jebediah Pyre. Garfield, fresh off of last year’s tick, tick…BOOM! for which he received an Academy Award nomination, provides yet another emotionally gripping performance as a man struggling to juggle his faith, his family, and his career. Detective Pyre is facing a truly arduous time in his life and, in my opinion, there was not a better choice than Garfield to portray this honorable, inquisitive, impassioned man on-screen.

Gil Birmingham plays Detective Pyre’s partner on the case, Detective Taba, and provides the perfect foil to Garfield’s character. While Pyre is often driven by faith and his emotional attachment to this case, Taba is driven by the cold hard facts and seeks to play things by the book when Pyre refuses to do so. Birmingham brought a perfectly intense depth to this role and provides a much-needed break from the actions that faith in the LDS church brings to the majority of these characters. Daisy Edgar-Jones graced the screen as Brenda Wright Lafferty, one of the victims in this true story, and her performance across the series should earn her some well-deserved recognition — particularly the tear inducing performance she displayed in the series finale.

Wyatt Russell and Sam Worthington were powerhouses in Under the Banner of Heaven from the moment they entered the scene in episode 1 until their final moments in episode 7. Russell and Worthington provided career defining performances in the series as brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, and I absolutely expect to see them amongst nominations in the upcoming awards season. It would be a disservice to the countless incredible performances to not mention that the entirety of this cast, not just the five performers mentioned here by name, have set a new standard for acting in a television series.

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It is my sincerest hope that this series and all involved in it are recognized for the monumental amount of work that went into providing this masterpiece of a limited series.

Under the Banner of Heaven is available to stream now on Hulu.

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