This year at Sundance, I have seen four movies about the disturbing power of authority to create obedience. Going Clear uses weird mythology, extortion and blackmail to expand its power. Experimenter shows the power of coercing an individual to follow violent orders while The Stanford Prison Experiment shows how specific tactics easily disrupt and rearrange social dynamics. Prophet’s Prey is the final film I saw that explores the effects of authority and obedience, and it’s not only disturbing, but also by far the most sickening. Amy Berg’s documentary goes through timeline for the rise and fall of Warren Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentlist Church of Latter-day Saints (FLDS). While the documentary creates a strong arc for the investigation into Jeffs and the FLDS by journalist Jon Krakauer and private investigator Sam Brower, it also leaves us with the disheartening conclusion of how people will take no end of abuse once they’re programmed to do so.
Beginning with a strikingly animated, brief history of the Church of Latter-day Saints (narrated by Nick Cave), Prophet’s Prey explains the history of the offshoot FLDS, which holds to the original commandment from 1843 stating that polygamy was an obligation of every Church member. This commandment was later rescinded, but the FLDS continued to follow it and were led by the Jeffs family. All male members were encouraged to take multiple wives, but Rulon Jeffs and his son Warren took by far the most. They also proceeded to brainwash every member—especially the children—through instruction, sermons, songs, sexual abuse, and fear. Brower and Krakauer attempt to uncover the secrecy behind the FLDS and stop Jeffs, a child molester and likely murderer.
Early in the film, Berg shows a piece of school notebook paper with the words that were given to FLDS children: “Perfect obedience produces perfect faith.” Like Going Clear, the world presented by Prophet’s Prey could be used as a takedown of all religion, but Berg keeps her focus on Jeffs and his abuse of power. Unlike mainstream religions, the FLDS has the markings of a cult where members are kept in a compound, shady tactics are used to avoid the law (a town was purposefully built on the border of Utah and Arizona), they must wear uniform dress (all the women don prairie dresses), and those who challenge the Church are separated from their families, including their children. Prophet’s Prey isn’t a story about faith; it’s a story about blind obedience
This obedience produces stomach-churning revelations when it comes to Jeffs’ sexual molestation of children. Berg provides photos and even audio to show Jeffs abuse of young girls, although he also sexually molested young boys. One interviewee recounts a story of being taken out of class by Jeffs to be abused in a bathroom. Prophet’s Prey is very difficult to watch, and at times we’re left wondering what’s the purpose? How much attention can we lavish on this sick son of a bitch?
Berg doesn’t examine Jeffs because he’s captivating, but because sometimes we have to look into the heart of darkness, and realize that the darkness goes far deeper than we ever cared to imagine. The director creeps us out again and again, not just with evidence of Jeffs’ actions, but also with audio clips of his sermons and a few choir songs. Jeffs eventually earned his way onto the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted List, and it’s not difficult to see why.
Once Jeffs goes on the run, Prophet’s Prey moves away from the machinations of the FLDS church, and further focuses on a singular figure. This makes the movie more about Jeffs than the cult, and while he’s still a darkly fascinating figure, it’s how he relates to his people that makes the story compelling. If the focus is just Jeffs, then we can brush off the individual. But when the focus expands to the entire cult, it becomes about human behavior, and how reality becomes fixed to where one man can bend that reality at will. Anything he says—even if he admits that he doesn’t speak for God—will be ignored. A denial is only a test of his people’s faith, and that faith is unshakeable.
One of the central tenants of our humanity is free will. People belonging to traditional religions must work to reconcile free will with the belief in God’s omnipotence and “plan”. Prophet’s Prey shows what happens when one man removes free will completely. As outsiders, we’re shocked and appalled at how this could happen, and how rape, incest, and molestation could all be accepted and condoned by any community. But this is just another sick, sad example of how blind obedience and cruel authority function. For the poor souls born into the FLDS, they never had a prayer.
Click here for all of our Sundance 2015 coverage. Click on the links below for our other reviews:
- The Bronze
- Cop Car
- The End of the Tour
- Finders Keepers
- Going Clear
- In Football We Trust
- The Mask You Live In
- Mississippi Grind
- Most Likely to Succeed
- Slow West
- The Stanford Prison Experiment
- Stockholm, Pennsylvania
- True Story
- Welcome to Leith
- White God
- Z for Zachariah