A Prayer Before Dawn recounts the true story of Billy Moore (Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole), a boxer and British national who was arrested and incarcerated in Thailand. Unable to speak the language, addicted to heroin, and struggling with the violent and inhumane conditions of the Chiang Mai prison, Billy quickly loses hope and is ready to give up until he sees a chance of survival by joining the prison boxing team.
While A Prayer Before Dawn is full of intense material, director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire doesn’t feel the need to overdramatise, and lets the film’s brutal setting speak for itself. Between the quick cutting and minimal dialogue, the movie can feel more like documentary b-roll than a collection of scenes. For the first ten or so minutes you’re not sure if you’re still waiting for the plot to get going, but before long you fall into the rhythm of Sauvaire’s style. Throwing viewers even more off-balance (most viewers anyway) is an almost complete lack of subtitles, keeping you just as lost and confused as Billy.
It’s an approach that doesn’t leave much room for exposition, but as (intentionally) alienating as it can be, Joe Cole does a great job as the audience’s narrative and emotional anchor. He’s given few opportunities to bounce lines off other actors, and more often than not he’s just trying to keep his head down and say nothing at all. But between the handful of moments of quiet dialogue, his nervous body language, and his bouts of panicked fury, Cole communicates everything you need to understand what he’s feeling, which is really everything you need to understand the movie
More to Cole’s credit is the fact that you are able to sympathise with his character at all, as aside from being a bit less awful than the people around him, Moore isn’t exactly a swell guy. He’s a violent junky with little remorse for his actions; at one point he unreluctantly commits a vicious hate-crime to get his hand on another fix. This is a redemption story, and Moore does begin to turn himself around as the film progresses, but even at his worst you find yourself still rooting for his survival, which really is a feat.
A Prayer Before Dawn is certainly filled with villainous people, but the real antagonists of the story are Moore himself and the hellish setting he’s put himself in. Thanks to the all-too-real way it’s presented, Chiang Mai does feel like a character in and of itself. Even when Billy is boxing his way to salvation, it’s the prison he’s fighting and not the other guy in the ring. The downside to this is that there really aren’t any other characters that you feel like you get to know. The closest you get is the ladyboy that works the commissary (if you’re offay with the term ladyboy have a look at shemale hd), but despite her couple of extra lines she’s really just another prisoner that acts as a prop to Billy’s arc. The nature of the story is that it should be a fairly isolating experience, so it’s probably the smart choice to keep it about one man’s struggle, but the largely absent supporting cast can leave the film feeling a little flat.
It does also mean the film can drag, pretty heavily in some places. With a runtime of just under two hours, there’s very little that happens narratively to progress the story or trigger a change in Billy’s outlook. A lot of the conflict is explored and dealt with shortly after it’s introduced, which adds to the feeling of this being one long gauntlet for Billy to overcome, but it becomes a chore when you can’t map out the character progression at the heart of the story. There’s no denying that Billy has slowly reached the end of a slowly-formed transformative arc by the end of the movie, and maybe it’s a more honest than having him change after some big dramatic turning point, but looking back it doesn’t feel like it gave me all the ingredients I needed to appreciate his transformation.
Even though the film did feel a bit sparse in terms of character and plotting, it’s hard for me to be too critical knowing these are side effects to a bold and successful creative direction. While its narrative shortcomings may stop it from sticking with you for years to come, A Prayer Before Dawn’s ability to instill in you the isolation and fear of its protagonist makes for a fascinating, if sometimes slow, experience.