A Prayer Before Dawn
Real-life boxer Billy Moore’s truly harrowing journey through Thailand’s prison system has been adapted into a sporting drama that is a hypnotically brutal descent into hell.
Hell on Earth. Few can argue that such a place doesn’t exist, and there’s probably more than just one. Just look at the news, war zones, natural disasters and prisons. And only the very unlucky or wicked find themselves locked up in Thailand. The country’s prisons are world renowned for their beyond squalid conditions and overcrowding. Well, one very troubled young boxer Billy Moore (Joe Cole) finds himself prize fighting in Bangkok to feed his out of control drug habit fuelled by his raging personal demons. He falls foul of the law. The Liverpudlian is sentenced to three years in prison. A foreigner, alone, who doesn’t speak the language. For him Hell on Earth is a very real place indeed.
We open on Billy’s muscular body being oiled, massaged and stretched by a young Thai boy, both preparing for Muay Thai boxing matches in the under belly of Bangkok. It’s a hypnotic and intimate scene that is also a statement of intent, A Prayer Before Dawn is hyper focused on masculinity, and all of its facets. Accomplished writer-director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire brings his documentarian eye to the boxer’s downward spiral into full blown drug addiction – freebasing heroin before a fight, hiding an 8-ball of heroin up his anus, and his eventual head busting arrest. It’s an unflinching look at the grim realities of addiction, and the grimness doesn’t let up over the film’s almost two hour running time.
There aren’t any subtitles. Not a single one ever, as Billy is thrown head first into the Thai prison system, barking prison guards, communal strip searches and bedding down in an overcrowded holding cell next to a dead body, and that’s just Billy’s first day. We’re put squarely in Billy’s shoes, alone, disoriented, and utterly scared. None more so, when Billy finds himself held at knife point, as Joke (Sarawut Sae Han, a real life ex-prisoner) and his tattooed samurai gang, brutally gang rape a young inmate. It’s hard to watch. No question. But this is the reality of prison life for many, which cannot be shied away from no matter how horrific.
Violence is never too far away. In the claustrophobic confines of the prison, Billy’s mental state is pushed constantly into animalistic rage. Fighting is how he deals with life, he doesn’t know how to do anything else. It is his strength and his weakness, and he’s left with little choice but to channel his aggressive tendencies from a life of untold abuse into the prison’s Muay Thai boxing team. The camera is more often than not merely inches from Billy’s body as thudding punches and bruising kicks slam relentlessly into his head and chest. There is nothing showy or slick about the fight choreography. No wide shots. Or slow-motion combinations. There isn’t even a training montage. Just the gruelling and painful repetition of Billy’s fists, knees and elbows, hitting boxing pads, in a sweaty gym full of convicted murderers.
Billy isn’t a hero you root for. He’s a man you hope isn’t beaten by his demons. And Joe Cole gives an impressively committed leading man performance – bared chested, snarling, and often on the verge of collapse. His dialogue is basic and sparse, yet Cole’s pale blue eyes are a window into a sensitive soul, wrestling with his own moral failings and toxic masculinity. But make no mistake, Billy’s story isn’t one of redemption. No, it’s one of survival against his self-destructive behaviour. And the outcome is always teetering on the edge of oblivion.
The creeping discordant soundscape of chanting monks, rattling prison doors, jangling shackles are all filtered through Nicolas Becker’s spacey score. It’s a masterful use of sound design that underpins Billy’s minimalist journey towards the inevitable life or death boxing match. Hardly, ground breaking. But the gut smashing final showdown is brutally effective. And unlike most sporting dramas, Billy isn’t a better person after the bell rings. No, he’s just earned a little respite from his demons – (sadly, Billy Moore is currently serving another three year sentence for drug related burglary in the UK).
Prayer Before Dawn is the kind of film that swallows you whole, like it or not. It’s repulsive, and totally bleak. Yet it’s impossible to look away from. It’s not a film many will enjoy. It’s a visceral experience few will forget.