After her 2006 documentary feature debut Devil Us From Evil—about a Catholic priest who escaped arrest even after admitting his pedophilic desires—Amy J. Berg’s return to religious abuse in Prophet’s Prey comes perfectly timed. In a year when The Jinx and Going Clear have dominated the world of docs with stories of deceptive monsters and the dangers of belief, Berg presents both along with an intriguing subject, but the scattered approach and muddled progression never quite do the topic justice.
Prophet’s Prey presents the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the FLDS, who splintered from the Mormon Church due to their change in stance on polygamy. The leader of this group, Warren Jeffs, has dozens of wives and rules his compound on the Arizona-Utah border with the belief he is a prophet who will one day become the leader of the world. Jeffs’ position of power allows him to indeed act like a god, earning millions of dollars from the companies that give them all of their profits, controlling the media on his little world and monitoring the town’s actions by cameras. After decades of leadership, Jeffs was arrested for the sexual abuse of many boys and girls in his church, including marrying a 12-year-old and impregnating underage children.
Guiding Berg through this cult are two authors and experts on the subject: Jon Krakauer, who wrote Under the Banner of Heaven, and private detective Sam Brower, whose Prophet’s Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints provides the basis for the film. Both men detail their inquiries and attempts to get Jeffs arrested for his atrocities, while Berg chronicles the FLDS concurrently.
Berg rarely gives us any footage of Jeffs outside of his “voice of god” mode, yet when she does, it’s almost as strangely disturbing as the bile he speaks to his followers. Despite preaching an absolute belief in the church, Jeffs is arrested on a trip to Las Vegas—on a vacation from his religion and his position in it, while for the first time dressed like just a normal guy. Cameras catch a jailed Jeffs standing in one spot for hours, just staring at his reflection, reminiscent of Paranormal Activity. These layers of his persona and the unusual choices we see him make when not in the church create a monster that is impossible to unravel.
Yet by intercutting the efforts of Krakauer and Brower with the sordid lowdown on the FLDS, Berg clutters the story she is trying to tell. Often her interviews with various people involved with the church aren’t in any sort of order, sometimes jumping ahead to events not yet seen or not syncing with the overall account. Prophet’s Prey begins with an interesting animated recap of the Mormon church narrated by Nick Cave (who also co-scored the film with Warren Ellis), but once the film gets started, it becomes a pretty standard talking-head documentary.
While Krakauer and Brower’s investigation often seems like it’s about to get into some fascinating areas of the FLDS, Prophet’s Prey never focuses on these two for long enough to get momentum going. On the other hand, the history of the FLDS could’ve used more restraint. Berg liberally throws in audio clips of Jeffs’ teachings as told in his monotonous and emotionless tone, which is incredibly effective at first but soon grows tiresome. Even more egregious is the film’s decision to play an audio clip of Jeffs sexually abusing his 12-year-old wife. Prior to hearing the clip, it is mentioned that this horrible evidence exists and was used in one of the court cases against him, but playing the audio of Jeffs raping his young wife while praising God is a step beyond overkill.
Given how many people leave the church—despite the FLDS still going strong with Jeffs leading from behind bars—it’s surprising that Prophet’s Prey rarely considers who escaped his grasp. There are a handful of interviews with Jeffs’ relatives and sporadic discussions with one of his escaped wives, but we don’t get enough of how these people live once outside of this world that was once all they knew. At one point, it’s hinted that people excommunicated from the charter are relegated to living in cars outside of the compound, but we never hear from these individuals.
Despite going too far in one of its arcs while not going far enough in the other, Prophet’s Prey is still an excellent distillation of the FLDS and Jeffs, presenting as much information as possible behind this truly awful story. Like Going Clear, Prophet’s Prey presents a terrifying look at just how damaging blind faith can be, especially when the belief is so fundamentally flawed and shocking.
Director: Amy J. Berg
Writer: Amy J. Berg
Starring: Jon Krakauer, Nick Cave, Sam Brower, Ross Chatwin
Release Date: September 18, 2015
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.