A Prayer Before Dawn is the true story of British boxer Billy Moore’s time in a Thai prison. It could have been “just” a boxing movie or redemption story, instead director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire is more interested in using cinema for its unique storytelling capabilities than he is in telling a conventional story. There’s almost no dialogue, and most of it is in untranslated Thai. Many of the actors are former prisoners and most of the shooting locations are real. The film is minimalist and creates a visual experience focused on the physical.
Billy Moore is not a boxing movie’s typical hero. He’s a swaggering, aggro outsider on his way to a bad end. With that in mind, the fact that he ends up arrested for weapons and drug charges is no surprise. His reaction to it is intriguingly stoic until he starts to get hit with painful heroin withdrawals. John Cole, who some may recognize from his supporting work in the UK’s Peaky Blinders, delivers a towering performance as Billy. Even if his work in television put him on your radar, his commitment to this role will impress you. The camera is so tight on him and Cole is so fearless in every scene that the line between cinema and reality starts to blur, adding to an immersive quality that sucks you into the film.
Prison is usually a crucible, and the Thai prison Billy winds up in is no exception. Corruption, theft, rape, and murder seem commonplace and are portrayed with unflinching realism. Conditions are unlike anything audiences would recognize from an American prison film, even something like Papillon. The prisoners have almost no room to live or sleep, packed together in large open cells like rats in a cage. Billy’s lack of understanding of the language and culture of the place leave him vulnerable to the darker underbelly of the prison as well as his own psyche.
Billy fights to keep his addiction fed and his facade unbroken. Predictably, he backslides throughout the film. These scenes are especially tough to watch for anyone who’s witnessed a loved one go through an addiction. But Billy’s not a victim and his rage is the real monkey on his back. Channeling that rage becomes his true struggle as he begins to find some common ground with fellow prisoners in the prison’s boxing club. The boxers enjoy a better life and more security, and for Billy it’s a chance to do something positive with his own demons and the social experience of the prison.
He forms a close, potentially romantic friendship with Fame (Pronchanok Mabklang), a commissary worker and transgender character invented for the film. She is also a prisoner, but kept separate from the general population to protect her from rapists. She is one of the few people to show Billy any compassion or charity. The capacity to accept help, especially as an outsider or addict, is a core theme of the film. Even tiny gestures feel like cups of water for a guy dying of thirst.The way this relationship is handled might be surprising to viewers expecting the kind of machismo that fuels most other boxing movies. No great bones are made about Fame’s gender or sexuality, except when she reveals why she’s in prison. One of the ways these two bond, across a gulf of experience and circumstance, is in their lack of acceptance from their fathers. The romance is earnest, sweet, and unafraid to push boundaries without taking over the story.
Another of the themes in A Prayer Before Dawn is men’s bodies. It’s a narrative theme in terms of what happens to Billy physically as he gets closer to his goals as a boxer while his injuries and lifestyle begin to affect him. The other expression of the theme is in terms of visual style. The camera is never far from bodies and the intimacy can be unsettling, especially in violent scenes. Every bead of sweat, scar or tattoo, every suppressed or expressed emotion is explicit. Fame and another transgender character are also included in this. In a film without non-trans women characters, this represents expansion of what a body is or means.
A Prayer Before Dawn is memorable for its approach to its subject matter. Those expecting the usual boxing tropes may be disappointed, but the experience offered here is raw and unusual enough to have its own value. The film is meditative in its focus but not its pace, a surprise considering the lack of usual techniques to drive the plot forward. At two hours, it never feels slow or dull. It draws you in and holds you in just the right spot to observe and endure.