‘Prophet’s Prey’: Sundance Review

Prophet's Prey
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Surely destined to be dramatized for a feature soon, this exhaustive account of corruption within a sinister cult is gripping all the way through

Director Amy Berg collaborates with researchers Sam Brower and Jon Krakauer to offer a comprehensive overview of the case against cult leader Warren Jeffs

Maybe it was just an accident, or maybe there was a concerted strategy afoot, but something in the universe aligned to ensure that Sundance this year was able to program two very strong documentaries about two similarly sinister religious cults: director Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and now Amy Berg’s Prophet’s Prey. Like Gibney’s film, Berg’s account of the child abuse cases that led to the imprisonment of Warren Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), doesn’t reveal much that hasn’t already been in the news or written up in books, but it does provide a comprehensive, disturbing and utterly fascinating historical overview.

In fact, in strictly cinematic terms, Berg’s more stylized effort is in some ways the more interesting and striking work, if for no other reason than its material is less well known. At the time of writing, the broadcast date on US network Showtime remained unconfirmed since there are plans to release the film theatrically first.

Once again like Going Clear, which draws extensively from a book by its anchor interviewee Lawrence Wright, Prophet’s Prey takes its title from and stands on the shoulders of research done for a book of the same name by private investigator Sam Brower, with considerable additional input from journalist Jon Krakauer’s bestseller, Under the Banner of Heaven. Both Brower and Krakauer are heavily here featured as witnesses - the film argues, in fact, that they played a major role in Jeffs’ capture– and the men take consulting producer and executive producer credits respectively. The twosome make engaging if contrasting guides through the complex story, with Krakauer coming across as the wisecracking, cerebral counterpoint to Brower’s burly man-of-action. Surely, producing partner Imagine Entertainment must be contemplating a dramatized version of their joint-story already.

After a simplified animated opening sequence brings viewers up to speed with a potted history of Mormonism and how the FLDS was founded by a sect within the Church of Latter-Day Saints that refused to give up on polygamy, the film plunges into the story of Jeffs and how he manipulated his way to the top of the offshoot church. Testimony from members of his own, huge extended family who have left the group or been expelled as apostates recount how Jeffs abused scores of children of both sexes (even members of his own family) when he was simply the principal at the local school, Alta Academy in Salt Lake City.

Once in power, and having moved the community to a beautiful but remote area on the border between Utah and Arizona (“Warren has really great taste in real estate,” Krakauer dryly notes) Jeffs reinforced the community’s isolation from the modern world in order to exert maximum control over his flock. Deploying classic brainwashing and indoctrination techniques, he set himself up as a prophet with a direct hotline to God’s word, allowing him to rule over his devotees with a totalitarian authority that makes Kim Jong-un look like Thomas Jefferson.

All that’s just the beginning. The real excitement starts when Krakauer, Brower and state prosecutors manage to muster enough evidence against Jeffs of systematic child abuse to put him on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, sparking a nationwide search that would lead to his humiliating arrest near Las Vegas.

Of course, a niggling suspicion sets in about a third of the way in that the narrative here has been slanted to favor Krakauer, Brower and later on local Texan journalist Randy Mankin rather than, say, prosecutor Eric Nichols, or any of the FBI men who worked the case. There were many other victims whose stories remain untold here or are only glancingly touched on, but when there are so many to choose from it makes sense that the filmmakers have focused on a select few willing to speak candidly, eloquently and emotionally to camera.

Berg (whose previous well-regarded docs include Academy Award nominee Deliver Us from Evil and West of Memphis) and credited editors Scott Stevenson and Brendan Walsh gracefully weave together the disparate assemblage of archive and original footage. Another standout element is the film’s arresting score, written by rock stars Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, while Cave himself also provides some brief narration at the beginning of the film. Threaded through it all are audio clips of Jeffs’ preaching his own sermons, and the sound of that weedy, hollow voice is arguably the film's most disturbing element.   

Production companies: A Showtime presentation of an Imagine Entertainment production in association with Disarming Films, Artemis Rising Productions
With: Sam Brower, Andrew Chatwin, Lori Chatwin, Ross Chatwin, David Doran, Craig Foster, Brent Jeffs, Thomas Jeffs, Wallace Jeffs, Janetta Jessop, Willie Jessop, Jon Krakauer, Kathy Mankin, Randy Mankin, Ivan Nielsen, Valerie Nielsen, Geri Rohbock, Ron Rohbock, Ben Thomas
Director: Amy Berg
Producer: Katherine LeBlond
Executive producers: Amy Berg, Dustin Lance Black, Geralyn Dreyfous, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Jon Krakauer, Regina Scully, Erica Huggins
Cinematographer: Peter Donahue 
Editors: Scott Stevenson, Brendan Walsh
Music: Mark Degli Antoni
Sales: Disarming Films

No rating, 92 minutes