A violent, stylish parable of a westerner in over their head in the world of Thai boxing and drug running, A Prayer Before Dawn naturally invites comparison to Nicolas Winding Refn’s divisive Only God Forgives. They even share Vithaya Pansringarm playing a figure of authority, though here he lacks the magical sword and avenging angel vibe that Refn gave him. Dig deeper, though, and there’s a soulful humanity to Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s film that Refn’s lacked. He makes room for tenderness and personal growth in amongst the dingy surroundings and brutal bloodletting, a rare thing in a film with such an obviously macho premise.
Based on a true story, A Prayer Before Dawn follows Billy Moore (Joe Cole), a Liverpudlian boxer who got himself sent to an infamous Thai prison on drug smuggling charges. Lost in a system with zero consideration for human rights or the wellbeing of its prisoners, all Moore had to get by on was his knack for extreme violence in the ring, joining his prison’s boxing team under the orders of warden Preecha (Pansringarm). For much of the film’s first half, Moore’s story is one purely of moment to moment survival, scoring heroin from corrupt guards and trying to scrape as many cigarettes together as possible to get into the prison economy.
Sauvaire does a fantastic job of conjuring the raw terror of being locked in an environment unbelievably hostile to one’s safety and sanity, exacerbated by the fact that Moore has only the faintest idea of what’s going on around him. The script, by Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese, is more in unsubtitled Thai than English, forcing us to feel just as lost as Moore as he attempts to navigate the complex politics of the prison. Only a small part of this story is told with words, however.
Visual, physical storytelling is the order of the day, from the cold-sweat anxiety of every unsupervised night in the cells to the dizzying fights. It puts a huge amount of pressure on Joe Cole’s shoulders, and he more than rises to the challenge. His Moore is a wild animal always backed into a corner, raring to dish out and take as much punishment as he can stand, with self-hatred and a desire for a more normal existence bubbling away just beneath the surface. His fury and tension mask very real fear and frustration, and one can only imagine the physical demands of the role.
The bouts in the ring are astonishingly filmed. Almost always one take affairs, the camera bobs and weaves with the fighters like an invisible third participant, buffeted by the blows that the combatants rain down on one another and having to fight to keep up with the sheer speed of it all. The immersion is absolute, instantly throwing you into the fight to the point where you’ll find yourself unconsciously dodging punches and wincing at savage elbows to the face. Each moment of choreography tells a story – Moore’s ferocity and power at odds with many of his opponents’ technical skill and speed.
Whenever a fight ends, it’s hard not to feel like the film is on a comedown, slowing its pace considerably. Most of the time this is for the best, the burgeoning wordless relationships between Moore and his fellow prisoners surprisingly touching – a massive pillow fight is a very memorable moment of rare levity. Yet, sometimes a beat is repeated a few too many times and you find yourself antsy to step back in the ring. Sauvaire creates some indelible images, particularly when Moore’s boxing team anoint him with first tattoo, holding him and guiding him through the pain as their resident artist inks his skin.
A final moment of realisation and self-discovery is a bit too neat to ring true, but the story otherwise balances distress and catharsis exceptionally well. Moore’s victories are few and far between, so each one lands with a hugely satisfying solar plexus thump of happiness. The Thai supporting cast is less well served, especially Pornchanok Mabklang as kindly commissary manager Fame, the only female role of note, but Sauvaire does largely manage to avoid exoticism in his treatment of the local population.
Sure, there are face tattoos and dark criminal pasts aplenty and their language and customs are designed to confuse the audience, but behind this veil lie real people. They laugh and feel, and are capable of kindness, and it’s in these moments that A Prayer Before Dawn sets itself apart from its more bro-y cousins. Exhausting, battering violence mingles with compassion, a unique and compelling combination.