Prophet’s Prey evocatively synthesizes the interlocking stories of the criminal empire built by Warren Jeffs, the former president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS. The son of their society’s former ruler, Rulon Jeffs, Warren ascended the ranks of the church, beginning as a principal of the FLDS’s own school (a facility for brainwashing citizens to believe in the impending end of Earth and the necessity for blind obedience), officially inheriting Rulon’s reins when the latter died in 2002. Unofficially, Warren had been manipulating his father for years, pushing him to tighten their grip on their people, stripping them of music, holidays, toys, and all outside media so as to hone their fealty evermore to Warren’s will.
These exploitations prime the well for the financial reaping that unsurprisingly motivates Warren. The FLDS, an off-shoot of Mormonism that refuses to renounce polygamy, forces its businessmen to turn all of their money over to the church, which has expanded its territory to include large remote portions of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Texas, among other states. Before his arrest, Warren was the only member of the FLDS authorized to grant or approve marriages, which are awarded based on the men’s business acumen, often involving the pairing of prepubescent girls with much older husbands, many of whom were related to their “brides.” Warren himself had over 80 wives, some of whom he “confiscated” from other members of the church.
One watches Prophet’s Prey with an escalating sense of disbelief and horror, as Warren’s steadily revealed to be an even greater monster than we initially take him for. You keep expecting the story to emotionally plateau at some point, but it grows darker and more deranged. Director Amy Berg isn’t even relating the whole narrative, as there’s an endless list of victims, thousands of abused children and women, only a handful of whom are interviewed here. Warren’s a pedophile, a rapist, a literal slave driver, a thief, and a petty tyrant who rules a community of 10,000 to this day, from his perch of a jail cell that he’s to occupy for life as a result of charges for child sexual assault in Texas. (Infuriatingly, Warren was acquitted of similar crimes in Utah, for reasons that are vaguely established here, but appear to stem from political corruption.) Warren’s successor, his brother, Lyle, hasn’t been prosecuted for his complicity in these crimes due to the protection he’s afforded by the Hobby Lobby decision, which exempts people from testifying on “faith-based issues.”
The bitter citation of this last fact, in the closing text, highlights the film’s subterranean theme, which underlines every testimonial that’s offered in evidence of Warren and Lyle’s debauchery: the dangerous, ludicrous carte blanche that the United States grants people through freedom of religion, whether it’s the muddying of education with obvious parable or the federal government’s baffling refusal to tax most church institutions. Berg’s rage crystallizes in the audio footage we hear of one of Warren’s rapes, which is laced with faux-religious inquiry as Warren asks the young victim if what he’s doing to her feels good. In the midst of extreme violation, Warren is still playing his pious role, wearing his hypocritical mask. He’s a pig sating himself, and he doesn’t even subscribe to the austerity he imposes on his servants. On the run from the law, Warren is awash in cash and common clothes, going to Disney World with his favorite wife and bodyguards, hitting Las Vegas, generally rooting around in his spoils.
At times, one wishes that Berg had been more detailed. More information on Warren and Rulon’s relationship would’ve been helpful, as it’s intimated that the former murdered the latter, but this suggestion is dropped and allowed to unsatisfactorily hang. The law enforcement investigating the Jeffs’ dictatorship is embodied by dogged, charismatic private investigator Sam Brower and celebrity author Jon Krakauer, who both executive produced Prophet’s Prey, and who both wrote books that significantly influenced it. But their involvement with the FLDS is often spottily rendered, and it’s regrettable that Berg doesn’t expand her canvas to include more police figures, though there are a few memorable scenes with Randy Mankin, a reporter for the Eldorado Success who teams up with Brower and Krakauer. One also wonders how the FLDS became so lucrative and powerful: They seize all their workers’ money and have a vast network of wealthy legitimate companies, but how did they specifically grow flush under Rulon or Rulon’s ancestors? The answer to that last question might have provided a potent parallel to the larger inequality of money distribution in this country, further humanizing FLDS’s followers (to whom Berg wisely refuses to condescend) with the insistence that they aren’t the only people who accept their surrounding community as a given.
Berg’s more concerned with rendering an emotional tableau, rather than reciting every fact of the story, and she succeeds on those terms. Prophet’s Prey is a horror film about one of many devoted mini-armies that exist in their own world within the United States, largely unquestioned by the federal government. Atmospheric landscape shots of the American west suggest hidden, highly secure cabals and their prisoners, the latter of which are sometimes glimpsed by Berg’s camera, their clothes fluttering in slow motion, likening them to ghosts. Berg paints Warren as a satanic figure, using recordings of his droning, disembodied voice as a chilling testament to his madness and self-entitlement, which are reaffirmed by a tight close-up of the self-appointed prophet in a prison cell that likens him to a tethered supernatural entity, awaiting his day of wrath.