Sunday, June 29, 2014

Outlaw Prophet: Warren Jeffs (Sony/Lifetime, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s movie was a Lifetime “world premiere” called Outlaw Prophet: Warren Jeffs, a sure-fire exploitation topic — let’s face it, the Mormon doctrine of “plural marriage” (polygamy) has been grist for the pop-culture mill ever since Joseph Smith first proclaimed it in 1843, a year before he was lynched — and one that Lifetime and its contributing producers have already milked in productions such as Escape from Polygamy (2013), which grafted an offtake of Romeo and Juliet onto a polygamy story drawing on the real-life cults of Ervil LeBaron (whose murderous reign had already been the subject of an NBC TV-movie called Prophet of Evil in 1993, 12 years after his death in prison) as well as Warren Jeffs and his dad Rulon. Lifetime helpfully followed the dramatized version of the Warren Jeffs story with a Behind the Headlines episode about the real one, which cleared up some points the movie left annoyingly ambiguous and also corrected some factual errors. There are many conceivable “takes” with which one could have approached the Warren Jeffs story for a film, but director Gabriel Range and his writing committee (which included Alyson Evans, Bryce Kass, Steve Kornacki, Art Monterastelli and Range himself, all based on a book called When Men Become Gods by Stephen Singular — who was also interviewed for the Behind the Headlines documentary) decided to go all out for the Gothic and turn it into practically a horror film. Warren Jeffs was the One True Prophet of a breakaway Mormon sect called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS for short, which got started in 1890 when U.S. troops massed on the borders of Utah, prepared to invade and occupy the Utah Territory if the Mormons didn’t give up their church’s sanction of polygamy. William Woodruff, the fourth Prophet, Seer and Revelator of the church, got the message loud and clear and issued a revelation that God no longer sanctioned “plural marriage” and it was time for the church to end the practice.

Several breakaway sects left Utah and hid out in even more remote areas on the not illogical ground that it was wrong to give up a central tenet of their religion simply because the federal government in Washington, D.C. didn’t like it. The FLDS was one of these (though it probably didn’t have that name originally — the term “Fundamentalist” as a name for an especially strict religious movement didn’t come into common use until 1910, when brothers Milton and Lyman Stewart published a series of books called The Fundamentals, in which they decreed what they thought were the essential doctrines of Protestant Christianity, including the belief in the inerrancy of the Bible and the historical reality of the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s birth from a virgin, the miracles and the resurrection), and by the early 1950’s it was governed by a man named Rulon Jeffs. In 1953 the federal government staged a raid on Rulon Jeffs’ compound, which straddled the Utah-Arizona state line and was known as Colorado City in Utah and Hildale (only one “l”) in Arizona, the whole being located in an area called Short Creek sufficiently close to Monument Valley that the famous elevated mesa that featured prominently in so many John Ford Westerns was clearly visible in the long-shots of this film. The purpose of the raid was to bust the Jeffs compound and its residents for tax fraud, welfare fraud and the forcible marriage of underage women to middle-aged men — but the feds got a major public backlash. People in the area, even ones who were either mainstream Christians or mainstream Mormons and wouldn’t have dreamed of a polygamous lifestyle themselves nonetheless rallied around the poor FLDS members who were being harassed just because they were living their religious beliefs. The FLDS prospered and managed to infiltrate their own people into local law enforcement just in case anyone got any damn-fool notions about trying to bust them again.

There matters stood for nearly 50 years until Rulon Jeffs (played in the film by Martin Landau in what’s probably his best acting opportunity since his role as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood) got deathly ill; according to the movie, at least, he intended Noah Fielding (David Grant Wright) to be his successor as head of the FLDS. But he made the mistake of communicating this instruction to Warren, and instead of going along with his dad’s dying wish Warren took over the cult himself, married all but two of his father’s 19 wives and began a practice hitherto unknown in the cult of “reassigning” women to other husbands as a punishment for men he considered disobedient. He was finally brought down by a determined local sheriff’s deputy, Gary Engels (David Keith, who looks strikingly like the real one we see in the documentary), who put the FLDS compound under personal surveillance and waited for victims to emerge and be willing to testify against Jeffs. It took him years, but he finally found them in Rebecca Musser (Sabina Gadecki) and her sister, Elissa Hall, whom Jeffs married off to her 19-year-old first cousin Allen Steed (Will Buchanan) in 2001 when she was just 14, while Rulon Jeffs was still alive (Elissa appealed to Rulon to block the marriage, but he was too sick to do so). Married without her consent, she was repeatedly raped — and eventually Warren Jeffs was prosecuted in Utah for being an accomplice to statutory rape in connection with his forcing underage girls to “marry” adult men. Though the film really doesn’t go into this much, one of Warren Jeffs’ tactics was to expel large numbers of teenage males from the compound for no other reason than that they were teenage males, and therefore if he left them around the teenage females might get involved with them instead of the middle-aged codgers to whom Warren Jeffs was parceling them out as rewards for loyalty and services rendered. They became known as the “Lost Boys,” congregated in communities near the FLDS compound but not under its control, and tried as best as they could to live in a world they hadn’t been equipped to handle.

It seems that one thing Warren Jeffs was opposed to was education; though he organized his minions to vote in Colorado City school board elections and take over the school district in 2002, shortly thereafter he decided that all his followers’ kids should be home-schooled and pulled them out — thereby plummeting the enrollment of Colorado City’s K-12 program from over 1,000 to just 250. As a result, both men and women who either got kicked out of the cult or left it themselves had literally no idea how to make it in the outside world: supermarkets were terra incognita to them, and so were banks. What’s more, since the compound supported itself by farming and mostly eschewed modern farm equipment, they were turned out without any salable skills in the outside job market. The film tells this story with an actor playing Warren Jeffs, Tony Goldwyn, who’s considerably more attractive and charismatic than the real one (but then quite a few cult leaders, including Charles Manson and David Koresh, have succeeded even though they didn’t seem to be especially charismatic to those outside their cults) — indeed, the first we see of him shows him sitting in his bedroom, wearing just a T-shirt and underwear, wielding a gun and holding it between his legs (a classically phallic image evoking Freud’s ironic comparison of a penis and a gun as similar objects with opposite functions — a penis is a long, cylindrical object that shoots things which create life, and a gun is a long, cylindrical object that shoots things which destroy it), getting ready to flee because he’s been tipped that the compound is about to be raided and he is about to be arrested. Actually Warren Jeffs was prosecuted twice, once in Utah and once in Texas — the Utah case was dismissed on a technicality but in the meantime police and prosecutors in Texas had staged a raid on his satellite compound, YFZ (“Yearning for Zion”), and had found documents including photos and “marriage licenses” indicating that Jeffs had not only helped other people “marry” underage girls but had had relations with underage girls himself (and according to some allegations, not just girls; as early as the 1980’s Jeffs is supposed to have raped two of his nephews, one of whom committed suicide after filing his complaint; the other, Brent Jeffs, testified against Warren at his trial in Texas even though the specific crimes he was charged with were exclusively heterosexual).

Jeffs was finally convicted in August 2011 and sentenced to life plus 20 years — he won’t be eligible for parole until 2038, when if he survives he’ll be 83 — but he’s regularly visited in prison by his brother Lyle and gives the community marching orders, so he’s still running it from behind bars. Director Range goes for some of the obvious titillation this material lends itself to, but mostly shoots the film in a neo-Gothic vein, full of doomy music by Tony Morales and chiaroscuro cinematography that makes Warren Jeffs almost a super-villain, a man with uncanny abilities to evade the law and dominate others. Oddly, the film also makes the Jeffs compound(s) look considerably grungier than the appear in the documentary, where they were dominated by large church buildings designed in frank imitation of the mainstream Mormon temples. Overall, Outlaw Prophet: Warren Jeffs (the first dramatic film about him, though his Wikipedia page lists at least four previous documentaries) is a somewhat better-than-average Lifetime movie, powered by Range’s atmospheric direction and Tony Goldwyn’s powerful performance in the lead — you really get the idea of why the people in this community, especially those who (because of how long the community had lasted) had been born and raised into it and literally knew nothing about the outside world other than it was all ruled by Satan and therefore not something they should venture into, could have believed that this man was in direct communication with, and getting his marching orders from, God. It’s even harder to believe when you watch the Behind the Headlines documentary and realize how ridiculously nerdy, twerpy and uncharismatic the real Warren Jeffs looked — obviously it was more his lineage and his cunning than his own appeal as a leader that kept him in control so long!