Hulu miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven might wind up being a lot better as a whole than its first two episodes—and that was all I was able to see before review time. Those episodes are decent enough, except for a strange storytelling flashback tactic that stymies the momentum.
Under the Banner of Heaven is a six-parter based on the Jon Krakauer nonfiction book, which documented Utah murders with a disturbing religious twist. Andrew Garfield—hot off of a great year in which he scored an Oscar nom for Tick, Tick … Boom! and stole scenes with his Spider-Man return—plays Det. Jeb Pyre, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who is investigating the death of a local woman, Brenda (Daisy Edgar-Jones), and her infant son.
Brenda was the new wife of Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle), one of many Lafferty brothers in a prestigious, and very religious, Utah family. Allen becomes an instant suspect, and much of the first two episodes involve him speaking to Jeb while in captivity.
When Allen talks about his home life and wife, the flashbacks are actually quite entertaining in that we get to see Brenda alive, with Edgar-Jones proving to be a fantastic and relatively new talent. (She was great in horror-film Fresh.) There’s also a very strong supporting cast including Sam Worthington, Wyatt Russell and Rory Culkin; the film is at its best when it is telling their characters’ backstory.
As for that aforementioned wacky flashback tactic: When Allen starts talking, or ranting, about religion, things actually flash back to the days of Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, showing events during the start of the Mormon religion. This stuff is out of left field; it doesn’t look good (especially the amateurish costuming); and it plays like some of the propaganda films I used to have to watch in my Baptist and very Protestant Sunday school sessions, before I started refusing to go to church as a teen. (That whole church scene made me real sleepy; I found I’d rather be chasing girls and hanging out at McDonalds … and we didn’t drink no milkshakes at McDonald’s, let me tell you.)
Garfield, Edgar-Jones and the rest of the cast will have me returning to see how all of this plays out. Thankfully, I never read the book; I bought it, but it just sat on my shelf, so I don’t know how things turned out, and I’m hoping to find out while watching.
So, everybody: Shut up if you know the ending!
Under the Banner of Heaven is now streaming on Hulu, with new episodes being released Thursdays through May 26.