'Prophet's Prey' review: One man, 90 wives, suspenseful documentary

The polygamous, abusive cult leader Warren Jeffs is the subject of an unnerving Showtime documentary.

For a few months prior to his 2006 arrest (though that's hardly the end of his story), the president and self-annointed "prophet" of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints found himself smack in between Osama bin Laden and James J. "Whitey" Bulger, the "Black Mass" gangster, on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's most-wanted list.

The unnerving documentary "Prophet's Prey" explains how he got there. Writer-director Amy Berg's film, a Sundance Film Festival premiere earlier this year, comes from Showtime and will make its Showtime debut Oct. 10, with on-demand availability on the 11th. This week, however, it's making its Chicago theatrical bow at Facets.

The subject is FLDS Church leader Warren Steed Jeffs, a lanky spectre of a religious leader, whose control over his followers, estimated somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000, became a waking nightmare of sexual exploitation and abuse. The FLDS Church, still going strong in pockets of America, Canada and Mexico, allows for polygamy. "Prophet's Prey" is infinitely more persuasive and moving for having gained the trust and access of such interview subjects as Janetta Jessop, wife No. 63 to Jeffs, out of a total of 90.

Until recently the FLDS base camp was located in Short Creek, Ariz., just over the Utah border, though Jeffs (blessed with "really good taste in real estate," according to one of the film's primary talking heads, author Jon Krakauer) established compounds in various scenic locales. We hear from a series of members of a terrifyingly extended family: men and women, many of whom claim to have been abused by Jeffs. The line between underage rape and a self-annointed prophet's doctrine is nowhere to be drawn in "Prophet's Prey."

Remarkably, the film avoids becoming mere excruciation. For years, as his fortune and power grew, Jeffs ducked and dodged and avoided arrest. Private investigator Sam Brower (whose book Berg adapted) speaks of the frustration he and others felt in pursuing a wily adversary. The film alleges, convincingly, that Jeffs maintains supervision, from prison, of his flock. Less convincingly Berg glances on the possibility that Jeffs had a hand in his father's death in 2002.

The movie finds what solace it can in giving voice to those who escaped this church's grasp. Throughout "Prophet's Prey" audio recordings of Warren Jeffs' sermons are heard on the soundtrack, intimating various forms of apocalyptic payback and punishment for the disobedient. In both calm, eerily sedated delivery and fervent content, they're the most frightening sounds you'll hear in a good documentary this year.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@tribpub.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

"Prophet's Prey" -- 3.5 stars

No MPAA rating

Running time: 1:32

Opens: Friday and continues through Oct. 8 at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave.; facets org.

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