A Prayer Before Dawn (2017)
Directed by: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire | 116 minutes | action, biography | Actors: Joe Cole, Pornchanok Mabklang, VIthaya Pansringarm, Panya Yimmumphai, Billy Moore, Nicolas Shake, Sura Sirmalai, Somlock Kamsing, Sakda Niamhom, Komsan Polsan, Chaloemporn Sawatsuk
‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ isn’t exactly a feel-good movie; that is already obvious from the subject matter and the synopsis of the story. It is the true story of British Billy Moore (Joe Cole) who is imprisoned in Bangkok for drug possession in the infamous Klong Prem prison, also sarcastically referred to as the ‘Bangkok Hilton’. There he is confronted with – to say the least – Spartan living conditions and a hard core of hostile Thai fellow prisoners. Intimidation, violence, rape… he experiences it all up close (sometimes as a perpetrator). There he must fight his way to safety and ultimately freedom. Literally, by confronting aggression in prison on the one hand, and on the other by becoming proficient in the popular Muay Thai boxing and coming out on behalf of the prison boxing team. A tough film, but one that continues to fascinate and from which you cannot look away. No matter how distressing everything is.
Although no one will mistake this for a light-hearted popcorn film, ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ is a bit different than you would expect based on the Blu-ray cover. This is not an innocent vacationer who gets drugs in his suitcase and gets him unjustly trapped. It is also not the case that he only came up with the idea of boxing in prison and that he should be completely initiated into this sport. No, he’s already doing pretty bad on drugs in a country that you know isn’t wise. And also makes all his money (or tries to) boxing in Thailand the moment he is arrested.
Not necessarily a problem, but it does make it a little harder to identify with him. Moore is by no means a stereotypical underdog. Add to that the fact that morally speaking, he doesn’t always behave as charmingly in prison – he almost beats a few boys to death, for example – and you can’t help but feel that he isn’t locked up completely unjustly. Not that Klong Prem Prison is the best choice, but still…
It complicates the viewing experience, but at the same time it’s all the more admirable how much you eventually come to fully support Moore and wholeheartedly hope that he will be released or get a chance to make amends. This is in large part due to the intense way it was filmed.
To start with, for a long time (at least half an hour) hardly a (comprehensible) word is spoken. You see only sweating, boxing bodies, you hear growls and screams, you see Moore being brutally nabbed by cops, you see Moore’s heavily tattooed fellow inmates pushing, intimidating, laughing and provoking him, you see dozens half on top of each other sleeping prisoners in one big room…. blood, fights, drug use… you name it.
You also almost only hear the Thai language, which is almost only shouted; mostly in the face of Moore, who has to deduce what they mean from the facial expressions and the physical actions. Because this is not translated for the viewer, he is effectively put in the shoes of Billy Moore, which makes the viewing experience extra oppressive and unpredictable.
Also the fact that Billy Moore (Cole) can be seen in almost every shot, and mainly filmed with a handheld camera, gives it a penetrating, intimate and documentary-like atmosphere, which is somewhat reminiscent of the gripping Holocaust film ‘ Son of Saul’.
Visually alone ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ is a success. In terms of content, not everything is equally successful. You are thrown into the story without context and you hardly learn anything about Billy Moore. This was undoubtedly a conscious choice. Because yes, it means that the images have to convey the meaning, which to a large extent they do, but it also keeps the viewer at a distance. In addition, the ‘sports movie’ part of the film is less powerful than he could have seen. There could have been more ‘depth’ in the training or the group dynamics. It also seems strange that Moore decided to join the boxing team quite late, given his experience with the sport. He may not have known this option existed before, but this is not made clear. Finally, the emotional component, Billy’s touching romance with ‘ladyboy’ Fame, could perhaps have been worked out a little more, as a valuable counterbalance to all the violence and blood, but here too the makers have probably been consciously careful not to make a too sweet whole of it. and keep the focus on the physical and the survival instinct.
Anyway, ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ is an overwhelming audiovisual experience, made even more impressive by the true story at the base. The film is well acted, raw, relentless, and in rare moments surprisingly sensitive too. It is a film that must be experienced.