Amy J. Berg’s Prophet’s Prey is infuriating. It contends with Warren Steed Jeffs, the current leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Jeffs is serving life plus 20 years on two counts of the sexual assault of a child, but he continues to lead his followers behind the prison bars.
Berg, who tackled Catholic priest Oliver O’Grady’s molestation crimes in 2006’s Deliver Us From Evil, adapts Sam Brower’s Prophet’s Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints for this picture and drills down the cause with the right sense of moral wrath.
The documentary begins by detailing the rise of the FLDS organization and its split from the more standard LDS Church over the issue of polygyny, zeroing in on the aforementioned Warren Jeffs as he snags control of the FLDS from his indisposed pop Rulon Jeffs and lines up a series of wives.
By making use of interviews from members of the Jeffs clan and other angry bystanders, like Brower and Into the Wild author Jon Krakauer, Berg’s movie details the extensive nature of Jeffs crimes and the many ways the FLDS made use of child labour and insider corporations like Paragon and Reliance Electric to further their treacherous interests.
The film also explores the hunt to take down Jeffs, including his chance arrest in August of 2006 and his subsequent trials in Utah and Texas. It also details the 2008 raid of the YFZ Ranch in Texas. All the while, Berg sorts through the hollowed-out structures of the FLDS empire with a flashlight and a small army of furious witnesses.
The audience is “treated” to Jeffs’ own words. Sounding like he has a mouth full of lard, he floats his revolting rubbish over scores of spellbound supporters and is able to get away with anything. Brower and Krakauer worry that he could rouse his credulous congregants to any course of action if he so much as wills it.
And there is an interesting conversation to be had about why some megalomaniacs are able to gather and maintain multitudes of blind followers regardless of shades of incendiary rhetoric, but Prophet’s Prey mostly avoids the psychology behind it. It’s predominantly concerned with the outrage and rightly so.
There is plenty to be outraged about. Berg spares little as she unpacks the evidence, with nauseating photos of Jeffs kissing child brides added to the upsetting audio recording of his “consummation of marriage” with a 12-year-old quarry. Janetta Jeffs, who became Warren’s 63rd wife when she was just 16, also tells her story.
And Jeffs’ crimes weren’t just of the sexual variety. He preyed on the finances and families of his followers, carving people apart from the inside and stirring them with wilted doomsday forecasts that hinged on the fury of his cartoonish God. All the while, cinematographer Peter Donahue watches with a mix of glorious overhead shots that meld well with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score.
Prophet’s Prey understands the indignation of the victims and allows them the opportunity to speak once more. Berg stays out of the way and permits the likes of Krakauer and Brower to handle the routine. She understands the material of horror and wields her weapons well, crafting an incisive and necessary motion picture.