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New Documentary Shows The Megalomaniacal Tyranny Of Warren Jeffs

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 1, 2015 9:41PM

Portrait of Warren Jeffs surrounded by some of his wives. (Photo courtesy of Showtime.)

A compelling portrait of megalomania and abuse, the documentary Prophet's Prey is also a kind of tribute to dogged journalism—the type that is increasingly hard to find as newspapers crumble and much of the media puts opining ahead of hard facts.

Were it not for private investigator and author Sam Brower, acclaimed non-fiction writer Jon Krakauer, and even the contributions of a small town Texas newspaper editor, the loathsome crimes of Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs might have gone unpunished.

Victims did come forward, and their bravery should not be undervalued. But without the detailed record of hard facts that filled in the illegality of Jeffs' reign, he might never have ended up on the FBI's Most Wanted list, where his name was right up there with Osama bin Laden and Boston gangster Whitey Bulger. He belonged in that company.

Prophet's Prey, based on Brower's book of the same name, details how Jeffs acted virtually unchallenged by local government and law enforcement officials in Utah, Arizona and Texas as he led the FLDS (which split off from the main Church of Latter-Day Saints when that group officially renounced polygamy). His twisted leadership didn't merely continue the sect's nasty tradition of polygamy and underage marriages, but extended to serial rape of minors and acts of personal tyranny and financial exploitation of his followers.

Warren Jeffs (Photo courtesy of Showtime.)
The literary rock star here is Krakauer, the former mountaineer who recounted his tragic 1996 Mt. Everest expedition in Into Thin Air (he has harshly criticized the current movie Everest, based on the same expedition) and also wrote Into the Wild. His book Under the Banner of Heaven also delved into the dark side of Mormon extremism, but he's quick to tip his hat to Brower's tenacity in daring to keep looking for the truth amid a community closed off from the rest of society.

That FLDS is as much cult as religion is not surprising, but as the movie makes clear, the accepted abuse is steeped in the group's spiritual history. This was not a case of brainwashing, but of generations raised in a community where absolute submission to church leaders is a way of life.

Proof of that is in Jeffs' utter lack of charisma—at least as he comes across in recorded sermons. Monotone and tired-sounding, he doesn't show any magnetism at all. He didn't need it. FLDS traditions allowed him to take over 60 wives, and perhaps as many as 90. Very, very young wives, with no say in the matter.

Needless to say, Prophet's Prey is pretty grim viewing, and necessarily so. A short clip from an audio tape reportedly capturing Jeffs raping a 12-year-old girl (under the guise of marital consummation) did not have to be included, but otherwise director Amy Berg handles the material tastefully without shying away from the tough truths.

Berg has tackled this kind of disturbing subject matter before, in Deliver Us from Evil (about the Catholic Church's cover-up of a pedophilic priest) and An Open Secret (about sexual abuse of minors in the entertainment industry). Deliver Us from Evil was nominated for an Academy Award and Showtime is putting Prophet's Prey into limited theatrical release in the hopes of a similar nod.

I'm not sure Oscar glamour will help sell a movie this dark and serious, and frankly the movie will lose nothing aesthetically when it premieres on the cable channel later this month. In this golden age of documentaries, Prophet's Prey may seem all too familiar in its standard use of "talking heads" interviews and archival footage.

But if the filmmaking isn't exactly striking, it doesn't need to be with a story like this to share and the writers behind that story on camera to share it. Brower and Krakauer are the main guides, but in a rare moment of charm in the film, Randy Mankin—publisher of the tiny Eldorado Success (weekly circulation somewhere around 1000)—adds a vital story and photograph to their digging.

It would be a stretch to call Prophet's Prey inspirational, but knowing there are still real fact-finders like Brower, Krakauer and Mankin out there does give one hope that a free press still has the power to free people.

Prophet's Prey. Directed by Amy Berg. Based on the book by Sam Brower. No MPAA rating. 92 minutes.

Opens Friday, Oct. 2, at Facets Cinémathèque.