Movie review: ‘Prophet’s Prey’ a harrowing chronicle of Warren Jeffs’ abuse

A still from the film A still from the film "Prophet’s Prey," which was part of the Documentary Premieres category of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy | Sundance
Review • Compiling the FLDS story in a heartbreaking documentary.

For those of us in Utah who follow the news, hearing the name Warren Jeffs may cause some eye-rolling, a shrug of the shoulders and a comment like, “What’s that creepy guy done this time?”

We in Utah have grown inured to Jeffs’ story, of his dominance over his followers down on the Utah-Arizona border and the conviction on rape-related charges that landed him in a federal prison.

Hearing that story retold by an outsider, as the acclaimed documentarian Amy Berg does in “Prophet’s Prey,” is a jolting reminder of the extent of Jeffs’ heinous acts — and how even prison hasn’t stopped him from holding sway over his flock.

Berg, who has detailed sexual-assault crimes of Catholic priests (“Deliver Us From Evil”) and those who work with Hollywood child actors (“An Open Secret”), lays out the history of the FLDS Church. The group, which was taken over by Rulon Jeffs in 1984, claims to be upholding the original mission of Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The LDS Church rejected its doctrine of polygamy in 1890, but the FLDS continues the practice today — usually with underage child brides forced to marry the top FLDS leadership.

Berg introduces Warren Jeffs, Rulon’s son, as a master manipulator who took over Rulon’s leadership role — and played up talk of an impending apocalypse — as the old man’s health faded. (There’s even the suggestion that Warren helped hasten Rulon’s death in September 2002. “All you had to do was feed him the wrong things,” says Ron Roebuck, former head of security for the FLDS.)

In 2002, just before the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Warren Jeffs had his FLDS members moved from homes in the Sandy area down to the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. He ruled with an iron fist, cutting off outside media, splitting up families and banning toys and holidays. “He just removed all the joy from Short Creek,” one interview subject says.

Most terribly, as many witnesses attest, Jeffs continued a practice of raping and molesting young girls.

Berg chronicles the efforts of law enforcement at the state and federal levels to bring Jeffs down. Two of her main interview subjects are Sam Brower, the private investigator who collected much of the evidence against the FLDS (and wrote the book from which the movie gets its title), and author/journalist Jon Krakauer, who wrote about the FLDS as part of his 2003 book “Under the Banner of Heaven.”

In detailing Warren Jeffs’ story, including the vastness of the FLDS business empire and Jeffs’ almost-comical arrest near Las Vegas, Berg doesn’t reveal any big secrets that haven’t been reported before. Having it all compiled in a 101-minute time capsule, though, is bracing — the difference between dipping a toe into a shallow pool and being tossed head-first into the deep end.

Berg gets some intensely personal interviews from people who have escaped Jeffs’ orbit. They include two of his siblings, his nephew Brent, and his 63rd wife, Janetta Jessop, who makes the heartbreaking statement that since she was married to Jeffs, “my entire life has been chaos.”

Berg also lays bare the essential paradox of Jeffs, that he might be the most uncharismatic cult leader ever. His droning, singsongy sermons are heard throughout the film, as is his disinterested voice in legal depositions. It says everything about Jeffs’ control, and his followers’ lack of options, that so many were sucked in by such a drab character.

The final horror of “Prophet’s Prey” is that the story isn’t over. Jeffs’ control of the FLDS Church from prison, channeled through his brother Lyle, is stronger than ever — bolstered by his claim to martyrdom by the government that incarcerated him. In that way, Berg’s movie makes viewers witness to Jeffs’ crimes and calls on everyone to do more to rescue the still-suffering victims.

spmeans@sltrib.com

Twitter: @moviecricket

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‘Prophet’s Prey’

This compelling documentary about polygamist Warren Jeffs and his FLDS followers is a stirring compendium of crimes still being committed.

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When • Opens today.

Rating • Not rated, but probably PG-13 for descriptions of sexual violence and language.

Running time • 101 minutes.