A lunar eclipse. Against the severe landscape – red earth, sharp cliffs and endless sky – that surrounds a polygamist compound in the American Southwest, five mothers cry out in despair. State officials have just raided their homes and removed all of their children, under the suspicion that minors are being abused and forced to marry by members of the sect.
The husband of the five women, a professed Prophet of God, discloses that he has received a Revelation. He must journey into the desert, where he will receive guidance: holy words that will ensure the return of their children. The Prophet instructs his wives to “keep sweet” while he is away, explaining that total obedience is necessary to ensure their salvation and the safe return of their children.
Eliza (the fourth wife) has visions of her only daughter, Lucinda. A room decorated with scripture and looming portraits of past Prophets triggers a memory: the day of her wedding. She was 16, afraid, an unwilling bride. Eliza does not want her daughter to suffer the same fate, but can’t imagine how they could ever leave this life. She has no friends or knowledge of the outside world. She has no way of making money or affording a place to live.
As night slowly turns to day, Eliza passes the time with her other sisterwives. Almera is haunted by dreams of her mother and grandmother, while Presendia and Zina work diligently to pass the time, longing for their husband’s return. Ruth is tormented by mental illness and the memory of her two sons, both of whom died tragically.
Ruth discovers a letter in the Prophet's study and gives it to Eliza. The letter voices Lucinda’s concerns about being promised to a man so much older, almost 60. Eliza is shocked to learn that her daughter would be eternally promised so soon. She resolves to leave the life at the compound and hatches a plan to escape. The Prophet returns, and Eliza convinces him to spend the night with her. She needs his full trust so that she can travel with him the next day and enact a plan to share her own message with the world. Alone and forgotten in their bedrooms, the other women seethe with jealousy, sadness and longing.
— INTERMISSION —
Split scene: the women sit in front of a TV camera in their large meeting room, while in Los Angeles a TV personality, King, interviews the women via satellite. The women are careful to stay on message. Afraid and distraught by the onslaught of all the attention, Ruth suffers a breakdown during the interview and leaves the room. The women, paralyzed with fear and the intrusion of the media, continue with the show.
Eliza, nervous she may not have the courage to speak out, suddenly explodes with the announcement that she was, indeed, married underage. She also seizes the opportunity to speak to her daughter – she looks directly into the camera and begs Lucinda to have faith, and to know that she, Eliza, has received her own divine message: “Say goodbye to men who encourage silent suffering – only a false Prophet would ask such things of you. Don’t be afraid of what lies beyond the sharp cliffs, the red earth – blaze a trail beyond the canyons, past the forests and gorges. This is my hope for you, Sisters of Zion! Hope and pray! I promise you, kind hearts beat for all of us in the outside world!”
Chaos ensues. Eliza’s sisterwives cannot believe she would betray them.
Later that night Ruth sits atop the mesa near the compound, under a starlit sky. She has been hiking all day. Praying for relief from her pain, and longing to be with her two children in heaven, she jumps off the cliff to her death.
Back at the compound, a few days later: Ruth’s funeral. The children have been returned to the ranch. Eliza arrives at the gate of the compound and is shunned by the other women. Lucinda approaches her mother, furious – she is sickened that Eliza lost her faith and will not gain eternal salvation. She would have preferred Eliza’s death to the course she is taking. Lucinda has no desire to leave the compound.
Eliza, watching Lucinda join the other women, realizes she cannot force her daughter to leave. She hopes that she will see her daughter again, and pledges that she will always be waiting for her, and will always love her. Heartbroken, she walks away from the compound and into the unknown.