Prophet’s Prey is hardly the first documentary to chronicle the many sins committed by former Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) leader Warren Jeffs, but it’s among the most comprehensive and disturbing. Where the urge, somewhat understandably, has long been to paint Jeffs’ exploits as a lurid tabloid story of fringe religious sects gone horribly awry, Prophet’s Prey focuses on what it must: on Jeffs, on the things he’s done, and on the continuous revelations that have kept his name in the news, time and again.
Amy Berg, who’s spent much of the past decade analyzing abused youth and the social systems that wrong them from the legal (West of Memphis) to the Catholic Church (Deliver Us From Evil), focuses here on the (eerily) still-active FLDS. Like this year’s Going Clear, another in-depth exploration of the point at which a religion sustained by the will of a single man lapses into the abuses of cult, Prophet’s Prey is a case study covering untold years of sexual, mental, and physical abuse largely protected by the American right to the free demonstration of religious belief. The film argues that Jeffs was a tyrant from the moment he began to ascend under his father, and needed only for the elder Jeffs to pass so that he could inherit not only a harem of wives, but also power.
Also much like Going Clear, the secretive nature of the FLDS to this day means that Berg can only offer so much testimony as to what happened at any of the FLDS’ many encampments, from Utah to South Dakota to Texas, all in the middle of nowhere and funded by Jeffs’ frequent demands of church members’ entire paychecks as an acceptable tithe under God and church. Church defectors like the son of current FLDS leader Lyle Jeffs and one of Jeffs’ estimated 78 wives (many of whom were taken forcibly, to say nothing of underage) speak of the tyrannical regime he created, one that relied on relentless and constant indoctrination from birth and the fear of God’s violent, vicious reprisal (usually manifested in the form of Jeffs himself) to keep those within the congregation as obedient as possible. The film, however, is built mostly from these interviews, as little more than a series of Warren’s nightmarish recorded sermons has escaped for public consumption.
Even when Jeffs eventually found himself on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, right between Osama Bin Laden and Whitey Bulger, he continued with business as usual. Prophet’s Prey follows all this carefully, never outright condemning the larger Church of Latter-Day Saints; despite the hoary Mormon polygamy jokes you still hear to this day in some circles, it’s not generally the larger faith still engaging in these illegal practices. Just the FLDS. And the most riveting portions of Berg’s film are those in which she attempts to break down the elaborate cash flows that keep the FLDS capable of taking over entire towns and erecting encampments through which to continue the practices of separating families based on holy terror. If nothing else, Prophet’s Prey will avail you of just how many FLDS businesses exist, and how frightening their system of heavily unpaid labor and funneled profits really is.
The film shifts narrative focuses rapidly. Sometimes it works, as when discussing the nastier details of Jeffs’ relationships with his untold dozens of “wives”; there’s one moment when Berg blacks out the screen, and simply plays audio footage of an interaction between Warren and a 12-year-old he married that’s as revolting and deeply unsettling as anything to enter a theater in this year or any other. The film doesn’t linger on these details longer than it must, and it’s better for that. The continuous shifts later in Prophet’s Prey, though, follow the tempo of the endlessly frustrating investigation to its mild detriment, moving from a Jeffs deposition from 2014 that frames him onscreen as a Hannibal Lecter surrogate, repeatedly pleading the Fifth from inside a cage, to the stories of his reign of terror to a continued investigation going on even now that Prey occasionally verges on unloading more information at one time than it can keep coherent.
But this is the occasional struggle of an otherwise maddening, tragic documentary. Because the FLDS continues to grow, even with Jeffs currently serving a life sentence plus 20 years, people like longtime FLDS investigator Sam Brower and author Jon Krakauer remain involved, hoping to help the scores of young people still being…well, brainwashed, frankly, into Jeffs’ teachings, which as the film evidences involve no shortage of obedience training, mandated submission as as the “right” behavior under God, and perhaps most importantly, the absolute truth of Warren Jeffs as their prophet, who will lead them into an apocalypse that Jeffs continually promises, and has yet to deliver. (The implications of what it would take to deliver such a thing are truly haunting. Remember, Jonestown happened based on the will of one man.)
As a final note, just two days before the publication of this review, two of Warren Jeffs’ many children came forward for the first time to acknowledge sexual abuse from their father. Prophet’s Prey largely tells of the abuse leveled as a point of alternate discipline and ritual from Jeffs to so many others, and while it’s noble for them to come forward, it’s also a profound risk. After all, another Jeffs sits in power now, somewhere, still railing against the American government in demand of its right to accumulate wives before continuing on to another celestial plane. And Warren himself sits in prison, still preaching to the flock, still (with one crucial exception, revealed here) maintaining his martyr status. Prophet’s Prey has few answers, but no shortage of blistering facts, and the sad hope that others can be saved. Eventually.