Another miniseries supposedly based on true events about a brutal murder case. What distinguishes Under the Banner of Heaven is that it takes place in a seldom ventured territory of a close-knit community of devout Mormon followers, also known as LDS (Later Day Saints). Andrew Garfield plays Detective Jeb, who investigates the brutal murder of a young woman and her baby in the otherwise quiet small town. He invariably opens a “Pandora box” of shocking revelations about the extent to which religious fanatics can interpret faith. His strong beliefs and faith are being tested as he struggles to do what is lawful and right in contrast to what his church and devote followers expects.
This series’ premise alone is worth watching. However, I found the overall pacing of the seven episodes to be sluggish, and I struggled to stay awake at times, so I had to rewind to see what I had missed. There were far too many characters to deal with here, and many of the guys look alike because they are all heavily beard! In addition, I found the parallel storyline about their founder, Joseph Smith, in the 1800s to be somewhat redundant. I can tell the filmmakers intended to draw parallels between the antagonists in the murder case’s behaviour and the roots of their beliefs, but these merely disrupted the flow of the main story for me.
Nonetheless, I would still recommend this series for a few reasons. Andrew Gardfield gives an outstanding performance as the conflicted Detective Jeb. We can feel his pain and hope for his happiness. He is backed up by a large and capable cast that includes Sam Worthington (Avatar) and Daisy Edgar-Jones (from Where the Crawdads Sing). Native American actor Gil Birmingham does an effective job as Detective Bill Taba, who provides much of Jeb’s moral and physical support in the background.
The film’s depiction of Mormon beliefs in detail is eye-opening. I’m not sure how much of this is exaggerated Hollywood nonsense, but the extent to which the religion’s distinct set of philosophies, values, and practises can be interpreted (or rather misinterpreted) by its adherents to justify wrongdoing is shocking. Misguided actions here include racial discrimination, tax evasion, breaking the law, polygamy, rape, and, ultimately, murder. The organisation of how the church is managed is also portrayed negatively, with church elders prioritising upholding the virtues of the religion above all else. In fact, it reminded me of how a Mafia organisation operates at times! All of this makes for gripping viewing.