A Prayer Before Dawn is an extraordinarily brutal and brilliant film; one of the finest of the year, and a reminder of just what the medium can do at its best.
A Prayer Before Dawn is the rare film that makes two hours seem like far too long and somehow not nearly long enough. It sentences you to a notoriously brutal Thai prison, so overstuffed with heavily-tattooed murderers that their arms and legs overlap as they sleep. The sweat stings your eyes. The blood fills your mouth. Screams and shouts; grunts and jeers; the sharp inhalation of the high and the pained exhalation of the low; the crashing of shins into pads and flesh. The film is so transporting that you’ll feel as though you’re there – but it’s so brilliant that, inexplicably, you’ll want to go back.
French director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire adapts the same-titled memoir of William “Billy” Moore (Joe Cole), an English addict who found himself incarcerated for three years in two of Thailand’s most notorious hellholes. His only solace is the boxing team, which promises the respect of his fellow inmates and perhaps a chance of freedom, if only he can survive himself and his surroundings.
But those surroundings are dizzying. A Prayer Before Dawn is an unrelenting assault on the senses; exhaustingly violent, terrifyingly bleak, and grimy with the oozing gore of tortured men. Cartons of cigarettes are hustled through bars by lady boy traders and gambled on the outcome of fighting fish, in squalid cells where the weak are gang-raped and found swinging from the ceiling. Sauvaire’s film is populated mostly by real ex-prisoners and boxing champions; these aren’t performances so much as memories. The dialogue is minimal, mostly not in English, and rarely subtitled. The sense of personal and cultural alienation in A Prayer Before Dawn is as palpable as in any film ever made.
The long-take Muay Thai bouts are bruising, as good as anything in, say, Creed, which employed a similar technique but lacked the same untamed authenticity. But A Prayer Before Dawn only spares time for a handful of them, choosing to focus instead on the battle between Billy and his own self-destructive nature. Cole is perfect as a bottomless well of desperation and loathing, his aching thirst for redemption keeping him going. But the film’s ruptured heart bleeds compassion, and its battered brain bestows wisdom. A Prayer Before Dawn is special – a reminder of not just what films are, but what they can be at their best.