Film of the week: A Prayer Before Dawn delivers total sensory redemption in a Thai jail

Joe Cole trades violence for self-acceptance as a meth-addicted boxer in Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s spiritual prison drama, a hypnotic spectacle that achieves an impressive degree of realism.

Trevor Johnston

from our August 2018 issue

Joe Cole as Billy Moore (left) in A Prayer Before Dawn

Joe Cole as Billy Moore (left) in A Prayer Before Dawn

Billy Moore’s autobiography reads like the stuff of an early Jean-Claude Van Damme flick. In the late 2000s, this Liverpudlian boxer and sometime drug dealer found himself the one and only foreigner in a notorious Thai prison, taking to kickboxing as a survival strategy – and an eventual conduit to self-respect. On screen, there’s no shortage of pummelling action in the ring, but director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, returning to cinema screens almost a decade after his remarkable West African child-soldier drama Johnny Mad Dog, thankfully isn’t terribly interested in the obvious upfront exploitation angle. Instead, his film marshals the blood and sinew of Moore’s story in service of a spiritually infused journey away from rage and narcotics and towards discipline and self-acceptance.

To begin with, the slightly acrid tang of Midnight Express (1978) hangs over the proceedings – the sense of demonisation that seemingly inhabits any story centred on the white guy banged up in some brutal faraway hellhole. Joe Cole’s wide-eyed Billy has to fight his corner in no uncertain terms, not least once his cellmates force him to watch a gang rape on his first night – a warning of what’s in store if he fails to toe the line.

However, while we’re possibly expecting a story of manly first-world forbearance in the most testing of circumstances, this adaptation of Moore’s memoir sees the embattled Billy instead drawing strength from his environment. The discipline and structure he takes on as part of his Thai boxing training not only make him a more adept and effective fighter, but also boost his self-confidence as he takes on his most daunting foe – an ongoing methamphetamine habit.

A Prayer before Dawn (2017)

In the film’s opening stages, we see that his default mode is to get toked up on ‘yaba’ and beat the living daylights out of anything in front of him – but, to his credit, Cole’s character grasps the need to change, and soon a fellow fighter’s wise words about focusing his attack in the ring – “See and decide” – have a telling existential resonance for him. Presumably, the affections of a ladyboy inmate named Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang) also play their part in Billy’s regeneration from the depths of abjection, though the film disappointingly pulls back just when matters are getting sexual and interesting between them.

There’s a kind of wispiness to the narrative throughout, which brings up sundry story threads, including a crooked guard, murderously vengeful fellow prisoners and even an apparently debilitating internal injury, only to move on regardless. At times, it feels undeniably sketchy, but then again Sauvaire evidently has the bigger picture in mind, and is prepared to overlook in-the-moment minutiae for a broader feeling of total sensory immersion.

Panya Yimmumphai as Keng

Panya Yimmumphai as Keng

The routines and rituals of prison life and the boxers’ training regime create an almost hypnotic spectacle, defined by the give and take of sparring body shots and repeatedly massaged limbs. Indeed, the opposing elements of yielding sensuality and punishing fists and footwork somehow blend together in Nicolas Becker’s enveloping soundscape; a leading foley artist and sound designer on myriad titles including Gravity and Enter the Void, Becker here blends a high-powered gamelan-style percussion ensemble, Buddhist chants and an electronic drone undertow (credited to noted ambient recording artist Loscil), which together make palpable the way the environment is gradually transforming Cole’s Scouse scrapper into a better version of himself.

Given the language barriers isolating his character, Cole’s committed performance is less about line readings than a physical presence: one minute he manifests a boyish vulnerability, the next he’s a ferocious fighter honing his skills by learning to control the rage that has almost undone him. The lengthy kickboxing bout where Billy proves himself to the wily prison trainer plays out as an extended take of blistering intensity as the blows just keep on coming.

Movie fakery or not, it’s bracingly convincing, which pretty much goes for the rest of the film, where we believe the close-knit community behind bars every bit as much as we did the youthful militia amid the bombed-out detritus of Sierra Leone in Johnny Mad Dog. Where the previous film relied to some extent on its sheer impact as reportage, this is much more of a cinematic construct, in which the apparent veracity of the production (seemingly recreating a Thai jail in the Philippines) combines with the effective patterns of editing and sound design. It’s an imposing proposition, and though for some viewers the scrappy storytelling will work against it, judged overall it really is a compelling journey into, and out of, the heart of darkness.



In the August 2018 issue of Sight & Sound

Interview: A fighting chance 

An expat Brit in a Thai jail has to learn Muay Thai boxing to survive, in Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s brutal, authentic, A Prayer Before Dawn. By Philip Concannon.

→ Buy a print issue
Access the digital edition

  • Sight & Sound: the August 2018 issue

    Sight & Sound: the August 2018 issue

    Flick lit: S&S contributors pick the 100 greatest novels and short stories about filmmaking, Paul Schrader on First Reformed, Harold Pinter&...

More from this issue

Access the digital edition

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.