Continuing TV’s current fascination with religious extremes, “Outlaw Prophet: Warren Jeffs” provides ample cover for a Lifetime movie with a higher-than-usual sleaze factor, focusing as it does on the fundamentalist Mormon leader ultimately convicted for his sexual abuse of underage girls. Tony Goldwyn captures the strange, soothing tenor of Jeffs’ voice in the title role, in a movie that otherwise doesn’t do much more than scratch the surface of a salacious story, which Lifetime will shrewdly pair with a related documentary. Ultimately, it’s a once-over-lightly treatment, with a ripped-from-the-headlines component like momma used to watch.
In the relatively brief buildup to Jeffs’ ascent to power within his church/cult, he’s presented as the underachieving son of a powerful father (Martin Landau, in a too-brief cameo) who isn’t seen as fit to fill dad’s polygamous shoes. His father also warns Warren to beware the outside world. “They hate us,” he says. “They think we’re freaks and perverts.” Well, if the shoe fits …
Soon enough, dad has died, allowing Warren to seize power and excommunicate those he perceives as a threat (mirroring the fictional depiction of these groups in “Big Love”) while building his own harem of wives with the support of spouse No. 1 (an under-used Molly Parker).
Based on Stephen Singular’s nonfiction book, adapted by multiple writers and directed by Gabriel Range, the movie is hamstrung in part by its focus on Jeffs, while detouring to delve into the fear and pain of the young girls forced to submit to his demands. That includes, in the creepiest sequence, a trio sitting there naked (or as naked as basic cable will allow) watching Jeffs have his way with one of their sister wives, while he grunts out dialogue about filling her with the spirit of God.
The movie is at its strongest when it sees through the eyes of the young women, especially one character played by Joey King (the daughter in “Fargo”), in whom Jeffs takes a special interest before pairing her off with someone else once she has received her “monthly visitor.”
Given his swoon-inducing role as the unfaithful president in “Scandal,” Goldwyn’s casting probably represents something of a coup for Lifetime, although “Outlaw Prophet” doesn’t do much more than replicate events, leading to Jeffs’ flight, rather proud inclusion on the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted” list, eventual capture, and the inevitable where-are-they-now scroll at the end.
“Outlaw Prophet” displays the grotesque aspects of Jeffs’ brand of fundamentalism, but his dad actually got it right: The movie settles for presenting the group as freaks and perverts. As for those seeking any further insight, perhaps skip the movie, and just watch the doc.