Those looking for a laugh better look away now. Based on the memoirs of British Thai boxer Billy Moore, Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s A Prayer Before Dawn documents his extended stay in a Bangkok Prison after an arrest for drug dealing. Brutal, confrontational and unrelenting, it is a work that doesn’t shy away from scenes that are so nasty that even Michael Haneke might deplore them as being too taxing upon the viewer.
Opening with Moore in the ring mid-fight and then onto the moments leading up to his arrest, the audience is quickly thrown into prison life. From there, it locks in hard into this frightening environment. Conditions are pitiful and the lack of order and control is a true horror to behold. Moore (Joe Cole) is the only white face in a prison filled with natives, and his inability to converse certainly doesn’t endear him to his inmates. He maintains his heroin habit by hook and by crook, as it provides a source of sanctuary in an otherwise bleak landscape. His only other bright light is the sympathetic stare of a lady boy.
A culture of indifference greets actions of callous cruelty and violence. Billy is held at knifepoint and forced to observe a rape, in one of the toughest scenes in the film. The unflinching glare of Sauvaire’s camera lens inflicts a queasiness upon the viewer that chokes the throat and rattles the nerves. The outlook is grim for this Brit and, after time, he realises that the only way he may be able to survive is if he capitalises on his skills as a boxer. He elects to represent the prison. This is a route to a better lifestyle; respect and purpose. If he can overcome all of this, he may well survive.
Visually, there is much in common with Thomas Napper’s contemporary release, Jawbone. In terms of the residual impression of tone and import, however, there is a great similitude with Audiard’s A Prophet and Scorsese’s imperious Raging Bull. Why? Well, little sympathy is engendered towards Moore. He might well be lost and without any real means of translation, but there is no evidence of growth. There is no arc of personal development. Then again, reassuringly, nor is it a puff-piece. It doesn’t eschew from painting him as a wild, directionless and inscrutable thug. Strangely, this lack of likeability doesn’t render the film anything less than engaging.
All in all, A Prayer Before Dawn is an explosive, hard-hitting assault on the senses. Joe Cole carries every frame brilliantly with a finely executed feral brute force. And if Oliver Stone had sculpted a prison Platoon, it would be fair to say that it would probably play a lot like A Prayer Before Dawn.