Director: Amy Berg
Running Time: 1:42
Release Date: 9/18/15 (limited); 10/2/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 1, 2015
The man's voice is enough to chill one to the bone. The disembodied voice of Warren Steed Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), echoes throughout Prophet's Prey. The subjects of his speeches are ones we expect—on submission and judgement and righteousness and eternal punishment. The tone, though, is unexpected. There are no signs of passion or even conviction in his voice. It's a monotone—disinterested and cold. This is not the intonation of a preacher, let alone a prophet who claims to hear directly from a supreme deity on matters of vital importance for his flock. He sounds—not to put too fine a point on it—like a sociopath.
Amy Berg's documentary about Jeffs and the FLDS is a study of evil disguised as virtue and of devotion taken to the extreme. Jeffs, as far as we can tell, is a sociopath, as well as a liar and an unrepentant criminal (If he weren't such a monster, it might be amusing that he answers the question of whether or not he is remorseful by invoking the Fifth Amendment). He might be a murderer, as a few people imply when it comes to the subject of how he obtained his position of power, although that accusation of patricide seems quaint compared to the other crimes Jeffs committed before and after becoming the head of the FLDS. That's the kind of thing he is.
The film opens with a lesson in history and genealogy. The FLDS, as one might gather from the name, is a fundamentalist sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The split between this sect and the mainstream church came with the latter's decision in the late 1800s to cease the practice of plural marriage, considering that it was illegal and causing a lot of problems getting the church recognized as a legitimate religion.
Jeffs speaks of polygamy as the "most important covenant" of his faith. In that regard, he does possess a degree of conviction—a degree equal to about 70 wives, some of them part of a "harem" that he "inherited" by marrying his elderly, ailing father to younger and younger women and girls.
Jeffs was the son of his father Rulon's "favorite" wife and the heir apparent to the title of prophet/president of the church (The accusation that he killed his father comes from his obvious ambition and, as we well learn, his lack of qualms when it comes to basic decency and morality). Through the testimonials of author Sam Brower (upon whose book the film is based) and an assortment of others, we learn of the corruption within the FLDS and the heinous extent of Jeffs' crimes.
These aren't curious outsiders, either. Of those whom Berg interviews, a private investigator, who has spent years or more of his life trying to uncover Jeffs and the questionable practices of the church, is the one with the least first-hand knowledge. In other words, Berg and her interview subjects make about as close to an airtight case against the man and the organization as we could expect from a series of anecdotes.
Here, we hear from Jeffs' family members—including a brother, a sister, and a nephew who were all kicked out of the church for apostasy—and some of his victims. One of them, who was his 63rd "wife," was "married" off to Jeffs when she was 16. He "married" younger girls. Some of them, we assume, caught his eye when he was principal at his father's school, where he took it upon himself to enforce the girls' dress code in his office, which he made certain overlooked the playground. One young man recalls how Jeffs would give a sermon to the students before bringing some of them downstairs to the bathroom. The young man was one of those children.
Jeffs' crimes went unanswered for decades, because he built an insulated community around his flock, complete with its own security force (which stops and intimidates the filmmakers while they tour the gated neighborhood). It's more than just brainwashing, the private investigator observes. It's a culture—a way of life and a way of thinking that becomes a part of one's own identity.
It helps to explain why Jeffs, who was eventually placed on the FBI's Most Wanted list (between Osama bin Laden and James "Whitey" Bulger) after fleeing from criminal charges, was able to do what he did. On an audio recording that was presented in court, he tells a group of women to step back before he proceeds to rape a 12-year-old "wife" while praying. Even while knowing this, his followers formed a shield around him when the private investigator started taking pictures from an airplane of a new FLDS compound in Texas.
Even now, while serving a life sentence (plus 20 years for good measure), Jeffs holds an unnatural sway over his followers, the interviewees argue. The FLDS continues its illegal practices, which go beyond polygamy to exploiting children for labor and straight-up extortion and racketeering (allegedly, one should probably add). All of it is supported by the notion that, for believers, Jeffs' "persecution" is proof that he is the prophet (Even after he admits to lying, they still believe, which only makes him more forceful in his leadership).
Tragically, even the Supreme Court of the United States helped their cause in a recent ruling that protected the "religious liberty" of for-profit organizations, of which the FLDS has plenty to fill its coffers. All of this makes Prophet's Prey, in equal measures, a haunting examination of one evil man and an infuriating indictment of shielding the illegal and the immoral behind faith.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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