Film Review: A Prayer Before Dawn

This gritty adaptation of Billy Moore’s memoir benefits from a breakout performance by Joe Cole and a strong sense of place—it was shot on location at Nakhon Pathom prison.
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A Prayer Before Dawn immerses viewers in Billy Moore’s (Joe Cole) experiences in the boxing ring, in a Thai prison and in his emotional despair. Credit director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire and Cole for an impressive achievement that takes viewers on an intense journey. But this true story, based on Moore’s memoir, is full of violence—there’s boxing, biting, bloodletting, bruises and male rape—that is sure to make this drama a tough sell to viewers.

The film is challenging both in form and content. The first, more ambiguous half is strongest. Billy is introduced as he prepares for a fight. After getting a rubdown, he can’t resist taking a moment to smoke some heroin, his drug of choice, before he enters the ring. Once the fight begins, viewers see bodies pressed together, fast action and fists flying. Only the body blows register before a victor is decided. After the fight, Billy gets some more drugs, but cops soon raid his apartment, tackling him and taking him to jail, where he will spend three years.

The prison scenes are filmed largely (but not entirely) without subtitles, an effective approach as it forces Billy and the viewers to figure out what is going on. A Prayer Before Dawn is engrossing as Billy navigates his way through this truly foreign system. He finds a space to sleep next to a dead guy; fights for water; is threatened at knifepoint and forced to watch a gang rape; thrown into solitary; and asked to beat up Muslims to get respect. Billy also gets into fights with guards when he wants a painkiller. (Alas, he has no cigarettes to buy the prison infirmary’s drugs.) He slowly befriends Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang) a pretty inmate who sells cigarettes, which operate as prison currency. Billy hankers for every opportunity to smoke, be it cigarettes or yaba, a drug that helps him get his heroin fix.

Sauvaire captures all these episodes, as well as the prison hierarchy with its cell bosses and guards, with unerring accuracy. Much of the early camerawork is appropriately claustrophobic. The burnished images inside the prison, courtesy of cinematographer David Ungaro, are sepia-toned, and the warm (but not inviting) palette makes the heavily tattooed prisoners’ sweaty bodies gleam in the light. Moreover, Ungaro’s lens makes the always-shirtless Billy stand out as the only white body in the Thai prison. Sauvaire fetishizes and (homo)eroticizes actor Cole’s muscular physique throughout; his body is caressed almost as much as it is pummeled during the entire film.

However, the second half of A Prayer Before Dawn, leans more into plot—Billy wants to compete in prison Muay Thai tournaments—and is weaker as a result. The film takes a very traditional approach to the fighting storyline. Billy trains, faces doubts and is pressured by other prisoners to win his bout—or his life will be over. He is also warned by a doctor that fighting is harmful given the abuse his body has already suffered from boxing and his drug use. The big matches are a bit overlong and underwhelming. Moreover, they are neither inspirational nor generate much dramatic suspense.

While boxing is meant to give Billy purpose—his prison life is “better as a boxer”—his character does not seem to transform much over the course of the film. While there is no question that he has a rough time, Billy is not always sympathetic. His efforts to charm Fame—they have a brief sexual dalliance—seem contrived. Moreover, boxing doesn’t seem to channel his rage sufficiently, though his anger is probably mostly at himself. Sauvaire doesn’t investigate these emotional elements fully, which is why A Prayer Before Dawn fails to be fully engaging in its latter half.

Nevertheless, the film does showcase an exceptional, utterly convincing performance by Joe Cole. He holds viewers’ interest even when the plotting leaves him on the ropes. And look fast for the real Billy Moore, who has a cameo at the film’s end.