Prayer Before Dawn review Joe ColeYear: 2018
Director(s): Jean-Stephane Sauvaire
Writer(s): Jonathan Hirschbein, Nick Saltrese
Region of Origin: USA
Rating: R
Color, 116 mins

Synopsis: The true story of an English boxer incarcerated in one of Thailand’s most notorious prisons as he fights in Muay Thai tournaments to earn his freedom. (Source)

A Prayer Before Dawn is a real stunner. Sticking to facts surrounding the incarceration of true-life subject Billy Moore, director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire has crafted a snapshot of brutality and sheer will. Dropping us right into the middle of a nightmare, Sauvaire dares us to survive alongside his weary protagonist, making the film a primal experience above anything else. Boasting a story shot on-location in a real Thai prison, and with actual inmates, this thing is brimming with an authenticity that can’t be shook. Harnessing Joe Cole’s powerful performance, Sauvaire brings to life unfettered violence and dehumanization amidst unsuspecting resilience and grace.

Billy (Joe Cole) is an Englishman attempting a new start in Thailand. There, Moore works as a boxer, rising atop the circuit as he struggles with a nasty drug addiction. After a sudden drug bust, Moore is sentenced to a local prison, the likes of which he isn’t prepared for. In a prison full of cliques, Moore is exposed to a number of atrocities, becoming a witness to murder, rape and all types of depravation. Moore quickly starts to lose it, struggling to stay afloat amidst the prison’s inmates, and going as far as to trade beat downs for quick fixes. After an attempted suicide, Moore finds a new lease on life with the prison’s boxing team. Channeling repressed rage and aimless aggression through training, Moore literally fights to find purpose in a world that’s lost its meaning.

With its inescapable realism, Sauvaire’s film plays out more like a day-in-the-life, than a traditionally structured film. This focuses the film’s intimacy on each fleeting moment, highlighting actions steeped in fear, anger, addiction and survival. Through it all, Sauvaire captures the struggles of every encountered inmate, each running from their own demons and motivated by different ideas of hope, or the lack thereof. In turn, Sauvaire forgoes hard exposition in favor of lived-in grit, lending the film its realism through immersive surroundings and genuine inmates who may never escape their confinement. Untethered from overt structure, the film is fast and loose, rendering vivid imprisonment and culture from the eyes of an outsider. Ultimately, Sauvaire finds a truth within each punch, evoking empathy without moralizing and allowing hope to seep through without turning Moore into a clean cut boy scout.

Prayer Before Dawn Joe ColeNaturally, the film’s ensemble of actors and non-actors embody the film’s verisimilitude. On the front lines, Cole brings Billy to life with staggering ferocity. There’s a natural strength and aggression within Cole at all times, causing us to wonder just when he’ll erupt. When he does lose it, Cole transforms Moore into something to be truly feared, channeling wrath and vulnerability through exhausting physicality. On the side, Pornchanok Mabklang’s Fame offers compassion and respite, while Panya Yimmumphai signals danger and savagery.

With its uncompromising attention to detail and brutality, A Prayer Before Dawn elevates a simple story into something more. To his credit, Sauvaire lets the devastation of each moment do the talking, hewing close to fact for something that never feels overwrought. This is as bare and stripped down as things can get, but also an approach that allows for such a harrowing depiction of survival. This is a fight, not necessarily for redemption, but about the constant battle within us, and the will to see it through.