The labyrinthine plot drags “Banner of Heaven” down.

Under the Banner of Heaven

“Under the Banner of Heaven” investigates the 1984 murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar Jones) and her baby daughter in American Point, Utah. It was created by Dustin Lance Black and it is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer. Brenda, who was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) married the youngest son of the Mormon Lafferty clan, a family famous for it’s independence and it’s resistance to outside influences (some of the son’s refused to pay taxes). Brenda was attending Brigham Young University and wanted to be a news anchor, much to the consternation of Ron (Sam Worthington) and Dan (Wyatt Russell) Lafferty who had started to interact with the more fundamentalist branch of the LDS Church (FLDS).

BASED ON REAL LIFE CHARACTERS

The Lafferty Clan (Father, Mother and six sons).

Ammon Lafferty : The Father (Christopher Heyerdahl).

Doreen Lafferty : The Mother (Megan Leitch).

Ron Lafferty: The Eldest Son (Sam Worthington).

Dan Lafferty: Middle Son (Wyatt Russell).

Sam Lafferty: Middle Son (Rory Culkin).

Allen Lafferty: Youngest Son (Billy Howe).

Brenda Wright Lafferty: Allen’s fiancé and then wife (Daisy Edgar Jones).

Krakauer’s book, first published in 2003, not only investigated the murder in great detail , it also set it within the context of early Mormonism. Thus Krakauer began with the early days of Joseph Smith, the Church’s first prophet, and his journey with the first followers from western New York State to Missouri. Then, following his death in 1844, the second trek under (after some controversy) prophet Brigham Young to Utah. His account includes the Missouri Haun’s Mill Massacre of 1838 in which 17 Mormons were slaughtered by the Livingston County militia and the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857 in which a group of Mormons and Paiutes massacred a wagon train of 120 -140 emigrants who were passing through their territory.

Under the Banner of Heaven

Black wants to dramatize all this and more. In fact, he desperately wants to convey the teachings of the Mormon Church in which he was raised, in addition to solving the mystery of Brenda Lafferty’s murder. To this end he invents several

FICTIONAL CHARACTERS

Robin Lafferty: Fictional Lafferty son, invented by Lance Black and played by Seth Numrich.

Detective Jeb Pyre: Fictional character, member of LDS, invented by Lance Black and played by Andrew Garfield.

Rebecca Pyre, Jeb’s wife: Fictional character, member of LDS, invented by Lance Black and played by Adelaide Clemens.

Native American (Paiute) Detective Bill Taba, Jeb’s coworker: Fictional character, invented by Lance Black and played by Gil Birmingham.

This allows him to focus the investigation around one person and for the most part it works. Garfield is excellent and he uses his soft voice to great effect. The scenes involving his family are also very well handled, particularly the complex interplay with his wife (Adelaide Clemens, excellent) who is unquestioning in her religious convictions unlike Jeb who is beginning to question his. There is also a nice chemistry between him and his coworker Bill, a Paiute Native American (Gil Birmingham) in what maybe a too obvious reference to Mountain Meadows .

Under the Banner of Heaven

The problems arise with the Lafferty family and the murder victim. Most of the family scenes are in flashback and with all those sons, their wives and their children, things get very confusing. Worse, Lance Black adds ANOTHER son, a fictional one named Robin (Seth Numrich) who acts as his mouthpiece. This, I think, was a major miscalculation. You can only ask so much. of an audience. To add another son to this already complicated household,. just because it allows to voice your opinions, is at once too easy and too much. It reminded me of that famous title card from that early Fairbanks/Pickford talkie “The Taming of the Shrew”: “By William Shakespeare with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor”.

Also, the characters and their evolution through the series don’t make much sense. For instance middle son Sam Lafferty (Rory Culkin) goes from a seemingly sane person to a raving lunatic in what seems like an instant. And brother Sam is not even one of the killers! Meanwhile, Ron (Sam Worthington) goes from successful real estate developer to a potential killer with similar degree of agility. Only Wyatt Russell’s psychotic Dan manages to develop a character arc and become a real person before our eyes.

Under the Banner of Heaven

As for the murder victim, Edgar Jones does her best but she is a fleeting presence. She has two good scenes. One is her introduction to the Lafferty clan at a beautifully choreographed outdoor lunch. The entire situation is so strange that we could be watching a scene from “ Midsommar” and her reactions to the various family members register with you. The other is where she gets the better of a senior news anchor in what is clearly a case of sexual harassment. Otherwise, she is just part of the over expository speeches that her husband Allen (Billy Howe) delivers to Detective Jeb after he has been arrested for her murder.

Add to this the ADDITIONAL flashbacks of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the early Mormon Church and we are getting an a overabundance of detail shoved into the series’ seven episodes.

There is much to be savored here, and most of what’s on view is worth catching. However, with a little more care in the writing and editing departments “Under the Banner of Heaven” could have been so much better.

NOW STREAMING ON HULU

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