Based on Billy Moore’s autobiography of his time in Thai prison, director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire brings us the true story with visceral intensity. Moore, a talented if unrestrained English boxer (Joe Cole), lands himself in prison due to his severe drug addiction. Completely isolated and vulnerable due to the language barrier and the internal culture and economy of the prison, Billy soon learns his violent temper will only lead him into greater precariousness with his inmates and further harsh punishment from the prison authorities. In order to survive, he realises he will have to confront his demons to endure the trials of his imprisonment.
Sauvaire’s relentlessly claustrophobic frame and frenetic camera-work lands a visual sucker-punch which disorientates the viewer immediately. Much like the boxer himself, the director rarely lets up this assault on our senses, unflinching in his presentation of the harrowing confines of a Thai prison. A lack of subtitled dialogue, a rarity for a foreign-language feature, or an internal voice-over of Billy’s thoughts works completely to his advantage, as Sauvaire immerses ‘us’ (the non-Thai speaking audience) in Billy’s vulnerability to the prison’s routines, culture and often banal brutality. We learn as he does. Precariousness becomes a state of being there as we, like Billy, are never sure what precisely is occurring around him during the film’s first act. Yet despite the very real violence within incarceration, Sauvaire foregrounds Billy’s personal fight with his addictive impulses as the deeper, more significant conflict. This is emphasised through Nicholas Becker’s eerily building soundscape that soon spirals all diegetic sound into a numbing discordance. The combination of alienation and self-destruction in this experience submerges us completely in Billy’s despairing isolation. It feels like an organic, if extremely uncomfortable, ‘rite-of-passage’ into a Thai prison (or, at most, that cinema has got) much like Sauvaire immersed us into the discomforting, almost surreal world of Liberian child soldiers in his 2008 feature Johnny Mad Dog. In the midst of this suffocatingly-close exposure to the sweat and pain, Sauvaire and screenwriters Jonathan Hirschbein and Nicholas Saltrese do offer poignant opportunities for Billy’s slow road to recovery to emerge, often in quietly underplayed degrees (Billy exchanging a fleeting conversation in English with Pornchanok Mabklang’s prison worker Fame or apologising earnestly to a former opponent that he brutalised). The frame grows steadier, the focus less tight on Billy and the inmates as he starts to watch, grow familiar with and find his feet again in jail.
All this is built around Joe Cole’s incredibly convincing performance, taking the actor beyond the, albeit lovable, thuggery of his Peaky Blinder’s Brummie gangster John Shelby. Cole’s inmate is vaguely reminiscent of Jack O’Connell’s imprisoned young offender in David McKenzie’s Starred Up, but the alienating circumstances doesn’t offer much in the way of character-building for Cole as it did for O’Connell. Cole’s mostly quiet, muscular presence effectively disguises his short restraint on a violent rage (affronts to him usually ending in a bloody, multi-opponent scrap) and, beneath this, sheer terror in his circumstances. Cole’s clear physical prowess in the unrelenting boxing matches (in which every punch, kick and crack looks, sounds and feel real) is matched by his believable portrayal of Billy’s increasing powerlessness to the often unmerciful internal hierarchy of the prison inmates. The actor holds throughout a physical and emotional strain that is often exhausting to watch. A solemn nod from a cameo of Moore himself feels appropriately and thoroughly earned. The supporting cast, an array of actors and actual ex-inmates from Thai prisons, add to the confronting realism through their naturalistic performances. Yet here Sauvaire’s decision to avoid subtitles is slightly problematic, as we struggle to develop any connection to Billy’s fellow boxing team or the more supportive networks in the prison beyond the inferences he (and by extension we) make. A familiar narrative of Western self-enlightenment and redemption in the ‘Other-ed’ place of the Far East could also be read into this story, despite its autobiographical basis, though arguably this is tempered by the personal nature of Billy’s affliction and the lack of sympathy or significance granted to him by the setting and its people.
A Prayer Before Dawn is an arresting experience; a descent into an often disturbing reality and a personal nightmare. However amid the often palpable violence, grimly tactile cinematography and an often difficult core performance, Sauvaire subtly depicts a journey from self-destruction to recovery. Considering A Prayer for Dawn holds no punches, its deepest blow to me was its surprising sensitivity.