A Prayer Before Dawn

Review by Christina Newland @christinalefou

Directed by

Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire

Starring

Joe Cole Panya Yimmumphai Vithaya Pansringarm

Anticipation.

A artful prison flick with plenty of boxing sequences, which premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.

Enjoyment.

A brutal yet poetic look into the violent world of a Thai prison that has you occasionally peaking through your fingers.

In Retrospect.

A way-above-average genre movie with a star-making performance of animal energy from Joe Cole.

Joe Cole plays a boxer who gets banged up abroad in this harrowing and poetic prison drama.

In a sea of intricately-tattooed brown bodies, a broad, freckled Englishman stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. In the storied tradition of the prison film, A Prayer Before Dawn sees a young reprobate from Liverpool thrown into the big house. But what he has to face is more than your run-of-the-mill penitentiary: he’s in the Bangkok Hilton, a notorious Thai prison where one year of incarceration is roughly equivalent to five in the US.

Billy Moore, the real-life crim who wrote a bestselling memoir about his traumatic time in the prison after his arrest for drug possession, is played here by Joe Cole, who turns in a star-making performance of savage physicality, imagining Billy as a rage-filled addict forever poised on the brink of violence. While behind bars Moore became a champion prison Muay Thai fighter, giving him a degree of stability in a volatile world. Chiefly, the film follows this struggle, seeing Moore volley between the discipline of the ritualistic sport and the dangers of gang life.

Faced by a glaring racial difference and no natural clique to join for protection, Billy must prove himself as no soft touch. The alternative is to be brutalised and likely raped. The language barrier is a veritable wall of incomprehension, further isolating the young man in a terrifying way. Few subtitles are provided for audience understanding, allowing the viewer to also submerge themselves in the chaos.

Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire transforms material which might otherwise be pedestrian with a devastatingly intimate eye, using roving tracking shots and handheld close-ups to seamlessly assimilate into the vicious world he captures. Special attention is paid to the the bodies of the inmate and his fellows, focusing the camera between muscled shoulder blades – on side profiles, bruised knuckles, tattoos, shaved heads.

In several sequences, Sauvaire follows the rub-down of the fighter’s muscles, marrying a homoerotic tension with incipient violence. There are stabbings and rape in this prison, but there is also a clandestine community in its gyms, in its trading of cigarettes and small-time gambling and in its sharing of stick and poke tattoos.

The thread of eroticism and tenderness is most evident in Billy’s relationship with Thai trans woman Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang), a beautiful fellow inmate. She and Billy form a simple but loving relationship, and she becomes a beacon of hope for him as he navigates this otherwise bleak ordeal. The woman who plays Fame is a non-actor. Much of A Prayer Before Dawn was shot on location in Thailand, with a cast comprising real ex-gang members and criminals. This affords it a naturalistic inside-the-prison-walls approach, and the self-assured directing is even more impressive given the film’s modest budget.

Beyond the macho limitations of the usual hard-case type, Joe Cole transmits a coiled hurt that’s intriguing. Although we know nothing of his history, his bursts of violence are as natural a method of communication to him as polite conversation is for others. He seems driven less by malice than he does a total inability to deal with life in any other way. This makes him a figure of empathy beyond his animalistic tendencies. A Prayer Before Dawn is a remarkably lived-in and poetic piece of genre filmmaking, casting an nonjudgemental eye on the machismo of the criminal underclass.

Published 20 Jul 2018

Tags: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire Joe Cole

Anticipation.

A artful prison flick with plenty of boxing sequences, which premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.

Enjoyment.

A brutal yet poetic look into the violent world of a Thai prison that has you occasionally peaking through your fingers.

In Retrospect.

A way-above-average genre movie with a star-making performance of animal energy from Joe Cole.

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