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.