Director: Jean Stéphane Sauvaire
Writer: Billy Moore (based on the memoir by), Jonathon Hirschbein, Nick Saltrese
Starring: Joe Cole, Vithaya Pansringarm, Panya Yimmumphai, Pornchanok Mabklang, Sonephet Inthisome, Nicolas Shake
A Prayer Before Dawn documents the wild and brutal true story of Billy Moore, a British boxer who finds himself locked in a Thai prison for three years, with only Muay Thai boxing to provide him any salvation. Based on his memoir of the same name, A Prayer Before Dawn embeds itself deep within the violent and unordered world of an Asian prison, to provide us with an unflinching understanding of what it takes to survive in such an environment, all through the use of incredible sound design and camera work.
From the outset, A Prayer Before Dawn is a violent film. Beginning with a crazed fight scene between Moore (played by Joe Cole) and a Thai opponent, The film rains punch after punch both thematically and audio-visually, with little or no opportunity for respite. Hard drug use, sexual violence and institutional corruption are all included in this extremely direct biopic, with very few moments of tenderness served as a break from the bleak reality we are presented with; those which do appear are fleeting.
Not only are we denied any distance from the horrendous and unthinkable conditions in which Moore and his fellow prisoners are forced to live, our senses are also subjected to a two hour onslaught. One aspect of this film which is entirely inescapable is the noise. From is opening moments to the ones that close it, A Prayer Before Dawn is alive with a continuous deafening cacophony of shouting and banging and clattering. The film is largely devoid of subtitles, so incomprehensible Thai chattering is confused among the hubbub, which is disorientating and unfamiliar. The constant aural input is so omnipresent that the few moments of quiet almost come as shock as you slowly acclimatise to the constant swelling and swirling of noise. It all works to create a surging environment in which can you never settle, deftly mirroring the experience that Moore likely had to endure during his stay at Chiang Mai prison.
In a similar vein, the film's camera rarely sits still, nor does it keep its distance. Instead, it sticks with Cole with an unrelenting loyalty, either through long rear-view tracking shots or by involving itself intimately within a few inches of the actor's face. This is most apparent within the ring. The intermittent fight scenes are brilliantly shot, often in one long take, highlighting the stamina and resolve needed to stick at such a brutal fight. The choreography is similarly excellent, fully conveying the intensity and viciousness of Muay Thai boxing, and taking full advantage of Cole's power and agility.
Joe Cole provides an astonishing physical performance as Billy Moore, the personification of anti-social personality disorder. Cole's hulking mass dominates the film, and he commits a level of savagery to his performance which is forever present as he literally fights his way through the prison, both inside the ring and out of it. Sadly, through no fault of Cole's, his portrayal of Moore is largely one-sided. He isn't given many opportunities to offer much else beyond his obvious fury and brawn, with his largely wordless performance attending much more to his external experience rather than his internal one. While he certainly gives 100% to this film, we are only allowed to understand 50% of the story.
The one issue with Cole's performance embodies that of the wider film. The film's significant flaw is not in what it offers us, but rather what it doesn't. A Prayer Before Dawn expresses its violent and brutal side exceptionally well, but overall the film is a little one note. There are no emotional beats, no moments of introspection in which the film allows us to see beyond the muscled exterior of its central character, in order learn about him as a person rather than a fighter or an addict. While the look we are given into a world scarcely seen in Western Society is brilliantly portrayed, it is limited by its overly-loyal focus on violence and strength.
Overall, however, A Prayer Before Dawn is a powerful biopic and a fearless telling of an astonishing story of violence and endurance, headed by a committed if not two-dimensional performance from a talented young actor. It is a remarkably sensory experience, and one which will likely leave you feeling as though you have been fighting to survive right beside Moore the entire time.
In one line: A Prayer Before Dawn is a superbly brutal look at what it takes to survive a violent world through the eyes of a violent man, but without offering an opportunity to see behind them.