Director: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Cast: Joe Cole, Pornchanok Mabklang, Panya Yimmumphai, Vithaya Pansringarm
Watch A Prayer Before Dawn online in the UK: iTunes / Virgin Movies / eir Vision Movies
A decade on from his Africa-set international breakthrough Johnny Mad Dog, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire returns with his first theatrically released feature since. With A Prayer Before Dawn, the French director is once again telling a tale in a country not his own, but this time, it’s befitting of the story at hand, in which the central figure finds himself the one and only foreigner in a notorious Thai prison.
In 2007, Liverpudlian amateur boxer and occasional drug dealer Billy Moore was arrested in Bangkok, where he was living as an expat, for possession of methamphetamine. He was sentenced to a term in jail, where he took on kickboxing as a survival strategy in a lawless environment of violence, rape and murder, where his own drug addiction was also supported by a corrupt guard. Eventually earning the right to represent the prison in a national championship, he overcame his physical and spiritual demons. A Prayer Before Dawn is based on Moore’s memoir about his sentence.
Without the knowledge this is based on a real life experience, that synopsis might sound like something out of an early, straight-faced Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, but Sauvaire and screenwriters Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese aren’t interested in playing up any action potential or exploitation angle for this story. Beyond simply being a drama, the closest genre it touches on is the crime film, as the various intricacies of the prison’s inner workings play a big part in the story; former cellmates threaten to kill Moore over unpaid debts, if he fails to win a match, compelling him to continue to compete, despite the diagnosed threat of a ruptured stomach as a result of his sparring and substance abuse.
The film, too, is thankfully spare of certain unfortunate tropes that tend to characterise stories of a white Westerner trapped in a brutal, faraway place. Although most, if not all, Thai dialogue in the film goes unsubtitled on purpose – so as to put the (presumably not Thai) viewer in Moore’s shoes – there is no demonisation or ‘otherisation’ of the supporting players; any intimidating factors are down entirely to the violent masculinity at play, not due to cultural conflict. And while the setting and scenario mean A Prayer Before Dawn is a tough watch, it is also surprisingly sensual and sensitive at times, allowing Moore (played in an animalistic fashion by a terrific Joe Cole) some intimate, tender scenes with a transwoman prisoner named Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang).
Sensory immersion over a packed plot is Sauvaire’s game here, with a deliberate sketchiness to some of the storytelling that might frustrate some who don’t get on the film’s wavelength for the near two-hour runtime. Subtle physical performance gestures over layered line readings; enveloping soundscapes, by Gaspar Noé and Andrea Arnold collaborator Nicolas Becker, direct us through Moore’s state of mind instead of clearly defined plot beats. Few would accuse this film of breaking new narrative ground in the prison or boxing movie genres, but as a stripped back, visceral, unwavering variation in terms of atmosphere, there is a lot to set it apart as a competitor in the ring.
A Prayer Before Dawn is available in UK cinemas and on VOD.