“Outlaw Prophet” is Lifetime’s Best

The flaw of a Lifetime movie is that the film’s potential quality is unreliable and unknown. Two weeks ago I lamented the network’s remake of the classic Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? This week’s Lifetime film is as impressive as Mother was disappointing. It’s shameful then, that the network has outraged its audiences and the public-at-large with its biopics and Unauthorized Stories, because Outlaw Prophet, released in 2014, is factual, accurate, and respectful of the victims of the FLDS community.

Prophet tells the condensed story of Warren Jeffs, the self-named prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The church practices plural marriage, and is largely left alone in its isolated community of Colorado City, Arizona (usually called Short Creek, or “The Crick” by its residents). Jeffs, a real-life monster, is serving life in prison in Texas for two counts of rape of a minor.  Jeffs has not been convicted, but has been accused of rape and sexual assault—of the many things Prophet left out, that would include how he groomed the young women of the community to become his child brides (as opposed to marrying whoever, whenever, which he did, too) and systematically separated young boys to abuse them during church services. For a comprehensive understanding of who Jeffs really is, a curious mind can’t go wrong with Prophet’s Prey and its source material, Prophet’s Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints by Sam Brower.

Prophet stars Tony Goldwyn, who most recognize from Scandal, but in this role is interchangeable with Matt Ross, who portrayed a Jeffs-like character on the pulpier, occasionally more sensational Big Love. Both Goldywn and Ross suffer the same flaw in their portrayals: they’re too charismatic. Jeffs is terrifyingly drull and bland. His voice usually lacks inflection, though was said to fly into rages. Surely HBO and Lifetime would hate to have alienated viewers with a villain who lacked emotion and feeling, and even as Goldwyn brings Too Much to Jeffs, his impersonation of Jeffs as a speaker is impressive.

Goldwyn’s Jeffs is a teacher in town before his father, Rulon, the current prophet, finally dies. Rulon tells his son that he has a successor in mind, and it’s not Warren. But with no witnesses around, Warren handily ascends the throne and publicly secedes to his own neuroses, taking his father’s wives, marrying youths, dumping the teenage competition in the desert, and having his followers destroy their televisions, basketball hoops, and surrender their dogs. These things all happened, and the film is Lifetime-y when it chooses to focus on the eventual downfall of Jeffs: the forced marriage of Elissa Wall, which secures the conviction after Jeffs goes on the run and is eventually caught eating a sad salad in the back of an SUV in Las Vegas.

Wall is smartly portrayed by Joey King. Wall’s story is accurate and respectful too, but hopefully the adaptation of her memoir Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs will come through, because her full story deserves to be told, as opposed to being used a means to provide background information (rampant abuse, families are often broken up and children and wives are reassigned to new husbands) before Wall is forced into marriage. Things speed along too quickly, as Wall’s sister, a defiant would-be wife, then Wall, escape, allowing the Feds to indict and eventually hunt Jeffs. To cover everything, Lifetime would need a miniseries.

Lifetime could have really screwed this up, but didn’t. The network also adapted The 19th Wife (a fictional story) and the based-on-a-true-story Escape from Polygamy. This blog will eventually see how those movies compare, both for quality, and in light of this film’s accuracy.

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