Nestled in a small pocket of Southwestern America, a growing sect of Mormonism makes its home, populating an insular community with true believers, hell-bent (in their case, perhaps “heaven-bent” would be more appropriate) on casting out all apostates. Years ago, author Jon Krakauer happened across the enclave, and it has consumed him ever since. Filmmaker Amy Berg feels similarly, and her “Prophet’s Prey” is (yet another) essential artifact from one of our finest documentarians. A complex and complete exploration of the The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and its criminal leader Warren Jeffs, Berg’s latest film is concisely put together and relentlessly honest in its depictions of what really happens within this Mormon offshoot — a “religion” where polygamy, child abuse, and rape run rampant — and the lauded leader responsible for perpetrating some of its worst transgressions.
The film opens with an animated history lesson that briefly lays out the origins of the LDS — Joseph Smith receiving revelation in the forest in the eighteenth century and such — with an emphasis on the doctrines that decreed that LDS men should take more than one wife for maximum holiness and success. (Smith himself is reported to have called it “the most holy” of all the ideals he received from God.) Smith died in 1844, but despite his dedication to this particular cause, by 1890, the Church had outlawed polygamy, a decision that eventually led to the split that gave us the pro-polygamy FLDS outcropping.
A large portion of the country’s FLDS population currently live in and around the so-called Short Creek Community, technically two towns (Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona) that purposely straddle state lines (clever, right?). Although the Short Creek area has long housed splinter members of the LDS, Jeffs himself was responsible for a population explosion that took place in 2002, when thousands of the faithful picked up stakes and fled Salt Lake City for the small town (Jeffs predicted a nuclear attack at the Olympics). The Short Creek move was immediately indicative of Jeffs’ stranglehold on his members, as such a sudden upheaval was punctuated by his demands that his congregation suffer great financial hardship (abandoning homes and businesses, spending exorbitant amounts of money to relocate, and donating hefty cash to the church’s coffers), all in service to what he was convinced was the correct decision.
Even better, Jeffs thought the world was about to end. It didn’t, of course, but that hasn’t stopped him from continually predicting the apocalypse. Jeffs’ control over his congregation is directly tied into their loyalty, and “Prophet’s Prey” chronicles how, by increasing control over his people (forcing various financial demands on them, stripping them of basic freedoms), they feel compelled to stay still more loyal. That Jeffs ends up in prison during the course of Berg’s film isn’t a surprise — the man was given a life sentence plus 20 years in 2011, after years and years of legal wrangling — but that he’s still able to wield control over his congregation while behind bars (for crimes related to the sexual assault of a child, of all horrible things) is a shock. Aided by his excessively loyal brother Lyle, who is now ostensibly in charge of the Church, Jeffs continues to lead his people while permanently incarcerated.
Berg has assembled an impressive number of talking heads for “Prophet’s Prey,” including some of Jeffs’ own siblings, a nephew, and a former FLDS security head. Krakauer and private investigator Sam Brower add outsider perspectives and rigorous investigative techniques to the proceedings, and the result is a full and introspective look at Jeffs and the FLDS.
The film presents mountains of evidence against Jeffs, including an absolutely gut-wrenching audio tape that was played at his last trial which chronicles one of the child rapes he was ultimately convicted of (the 12-year-old victim was one of Jeffs’ many wives, and the audio depicts a public consummation of their marriage; it is unquestionably revolting) and various personal accusations of sexual abuse of other children, including his own relatives. There are also a hefty number of pictures of Jeffs and his various spouses, including girls clearly too young to be made anyone’s wife.
Even more chilling? Audio tapes of Jeffs sermonizing, skin-crawling speeches that emphasize both his terrifying beliefs and the flat, unaffected voice he uses to push them on the faithful. In addition to his crimes against women and children, “Prophet’s Prey” also considers the possibility that Jeffs killed his own father to take control of the church (consensus amongst the talking heads? Yes, he definitely did).
Despite plenty of compelling material, the film occasionally exhibits an odd and uneven flow that significantly drags during its middle act. Yet Berg is able to lift things by the final act of “Prophet’s Prey,” a brutally unsettling peek inside Jeffs’ (and the Church’s) worst transgressions and decisions. Aided by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ haunting and low-key score, “Prophet’s Prey” is a skin-crawling chronicle of one of America’s biggest criminals and the community that allowed him to flourish. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.