It's been around 150 years since we gave much respect to Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle's so-called Great Man Theory of history. While there are unquestionable great men and great women who helped shape culture and history, the number of great men and women who made impacts that are worth studying outside of the context of their society is virtually nil. It's not an interesting or accurate way to view history and, as a result, we don't give credence to people who try it.
It's even less informative to view tragedy through an Awful Man Theory. It's almost inconceivable to imagine an interpretation of World War II, for example, that said, “So Germany was just going along fine and then Hitler came and ruined everything.” As monstrous as Hitler was, you'd never write a story of Nazi atrocities in which you reached the end and said, “And it was all Hitler's fault.” It's a total dead-end when it comes to ongoing conversation.
Amy Berg's disappointing “Prophet's Prey” isn't looking at anything as wide-reaching as pre-WWII Germany or the crimes of the Nazis, but she still offers up an almost absurdly one-dimensional Awful Man Theory when it comes to last decade's scandal in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS Church), a scandal which, in Berg's hands, can be boiled down to: Warren Jeffs is an evil monster.
And I think we can mostly agree on this one. When you're sentenced to Life+20 for the sexual assault of a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old and the world agrees that that's only the tip of the horrifying iceberg of things that you probably could have been charged with, then the vast majority of people will probably co-sign the “monster” accusation.
But the Warren Jeffs case wasn't a case that the media ignored. It was covered very adequately by the most mainstream of organizations and was the subject of various cable specials and whatnot. Ample evidence was given and disseminated that reenforced the monster narrative, which is part of why Warren Jeffs is — SPOILER ALERT — in prison today.
It's valuable information to have and I have no doubt that a lot of people paid no attention when the news was breaking, but if the only information you have is what was already available, probably there's no reason to be rushing a documentary to screens and that's what it feels like Amy Berg has done here. She has nothing new to add to the Warren Jeffs narrative and, in fact, ends up rendering the story of the FLDS Church into something sadly reductive.
“Prophet's Prey” begins with an animated sequence giving the basics of Mormonism and the split between the actual Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the FLDS Church, a chasm so vast that I won't use the word “Mormon” again, because that's not what the FLDS Church is.
Precious little is actually known about Warren Jeffs and Berg doesn't have much to add. We're told his parents loved him despite failings that are never elaborated on, though I guess we're supposed to assume, since Warren Jeffs takes a place of leadership at a key FLDS school and within 30 seconds of screentime, he was allegedly raping kids of both genders, some or possibly many related to him.
I'll repeat this again: Warren Jeffs is probably a monster.
But when it comes to additional details, Berg has nothing. She's got a totally unsubstantiated (at least here) suggestion that Warren Jeffs may have contributed to the death of his father, self-professed prophet Rulon Jeffs. This may or may not be true, though being 92 may also have contributed to Rulon Jeffs' death. You never know.
From the moment Jeffs takes over, FLDS becomes a nightmare of rape, in-fighting and financial impropriety, crimes that Berg ends up putting almost entirely on Warren Jeffs.
And that's comforting to digest, because Warren Jeffs is probably a monster.
But are we really putting all of the blame for the unseemliness of FLDS on the monstrous Warren Jeffs? Isn't that just a bit too convenient? When we see an assortment of talking heads bemoaning being kicked out of FLDS and separated from the families, I guess we're supposed to see them as semi-heroic for speaking out against Jeffs and pity them slightly for having a monster turn their lives upside down. But are we supposed to ignore that they're lamenting that their Church has become a den of rape and underage marriage rather than its previous status as a den merely for the institutionalized repression of women? Yes, I get that things became worse when Warren Jeffs replaced his father, but let's not look at Rulon Jeffs and his dozens of wives as something we're going to be nostalgic for. Jon Krakauer's much more in-depth “Under the Banner of Heaven” pointed out that Rulon Jeffs also married underaged girls. None of that was kosher and you're not going to tell me that had somebody else succeeded Rulon Jeffs instead of Warren that that person was going to turn the FLDS Church into a haven of enlightenment.
The Sundance description for “Prophet's Prey” says that Warren Jeffs' actions were responsible for “befuddling the moral compass” of FLDS, as if the moral compass was pleasantly unbefuddled before that.
Berg seems to be taking an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend approach to Warren Jeffs and the FLDS. A slew of cousins, siblings and other disgruntled relatives are horrified by Jeffs and what he did to them in particular, but none of them want to say anything negative about The Church's established treatment of women or its established doctrines of racial intolerance. Everybody just makes Warren Jeffs into the exclusive scapegoat — Might as well blame the guy who the legal system already condemned — but nobody has any actual insight into his monstrousness. If you were making a James Bond movie and made Warren Jeffs into the villain, the studio chief would go, “OK, I get it. He's a monster. But at least add some shading to his nastiness. He's too much of a caricature to be taken seriously.”
I'm not saying that anybody should be saying that Warren Jeffs was kind to puppies or that he would have been nice if his father hadn't thrown away his stuffed bear.
I'm saying that nobody in “Prophet's Prey” seems to know much about the guy other than his rap sheet. Wife No.63, one of only two of his wives to escape, tells creepy stories about Warren Jeffs kissing each of his wives, but otherwise you'd think she was describing a stranger. His sister is resentful. A cousin is resentful. His nephew is angry and it sounds like it's for good reason. But there's no understanding that I now have after watching “Prophet's Prey” of either why Jeffs did what he did (other than that he was crazy and claimed to be a prophet) or why people let him (other than that he was crazy and claimed to be a prophet).
If only two of Jeffs' wives have escaped, if experts agree that Jeffs' is just as dangerous from prison, that means that the rot in FLDS goes far deeper than just Jeffs or his successor Lyle Jeffs. This isn't a one-person problem or a two-person problem. But rather than condemning and deconstructing the institution, Berg puts almost all of the focus on a couple awful men.
You apparently can't get rank-and-file FLDS members to go on-the-record, because the talking heads here are just Krakauer and PI Sam Brower rehashing watered down details from their respective books, Brent Jeffs rehashing his book and his role from NatGeo's “I Escape a Cult” and the aforementioned Wife 63 Janetta Jessop, who may not be under Jeffs' sway anymore, but has still been so thoroughly indoctrinated that she's not ready for frankness yet. The closest the documentary comes to immersion is Brower driving around/through Colorado City, the town Warren Jeffs once controlled. He's at most a minor irritant to the residents and I assume he was more active in the midst of his own investigation. These drive-throughs are just tantalizing teases of a world that's alien when we begin the documentary and just as alien when we end.
I just can't believe this was the movie Amy Berg set out to try to make. “Deliver Us From Evil” was journalistically sharp and took on the institution of the Catholic Church with much more aggressiveness that she's used on FLDS. And while “West of Memphis” had the advantage of three [better] Berlinger & Sinofsky documentaries preceding it, it synthesized a tremendous amount of information in the West Memphis Three case very successfully. Neither documentary suggested a filmmaker willing to settle for an exploration this complacent and half-baked.
To me, only focusing on Warren Jeffs marginalizes the larger systemic issues and then giving such a superficial gloss on Jeffs pushes “Prophet's Prey” into irrelevance. I wanted better.
[“Prophet's Prey” is one of three Sundance docs heading for Showtime. “Listen To Me, Marlon” and “Dreamcatcher” are both vastly superior.]
Other Sundance 2015 Reviews:
“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”
“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”
“The Amina Profile”
“The Hunting Ground”
“The End of the Tour”
“A Walk in the Woods”
“How To Change The World”
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”