A Prayer Before Dawn was another promising entry by the continuously stellar distributor A24. The trailer certainly caught my attention! This film seemed to be about the possible redemption of a drugged-out Muay-thai fighter, stuck in one of the most hellish prisons of Thailand. As an amateur aficionado of Muay Thai, boxing and the spiritual rejuvenations that can be found in martial-arts, the subject matter seemed intimately appealing to me.
But judging from its trailer, it wasn’t going to easy viewing however. You were going to follow the main character into hell and it seemed clear that the film wasn’t going to shy away from all the horrific things you’ll be seeing there.
But it was going to be worth it, I was sure of it. But did the film deliver on its promise?
Directed by: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Written by: Jonathan Hirchbein, Nick Saltrese, Billy Moore (based on his memoir)
Starring: Joe Cole, Pornchanok Mablang, Panya Yimmumpha, Sura Sirmalai and Vithaya Pansringarm as Officer Preecha
Billy Moore (Joe Cole) is a washed-up kick-boxer from Liverpool, making his way through the underground fighting circuit in Thailand. Whether he wins or loses matters little to him, as long as he can make enough petty cash to fuel his extensive drug-addiction. He’s on a road to nowhere and he doesn’t care.
But this road to ”nowhere” leads him to Klong Prem, also known (ironically) as ‘Bangkok Hilton’, one of the most notorious prisons in Thailand. Billy is the ultimate outsider among his incarcerated peers, as he’s not only white but a foreigner who doesn’t even speak the language. Inside he quickly finds out that the rights of prisoners is little interest to the guards, as he spends his first night in a crowded room of seventy people, next to a corpse.
His designated room isn’t much better, as he spends nights alongside vicious gangs who prey on every weakness. He witnesses acts of extreme violence and sexual abuse and his outsider status makes him an easy subject for all these acts of evil. But the greatest threat of all comes from inside his being with the slippery slope of addiction.
Can Billy Moore find some semblance of redemption inside or will he fall ever deeper into the commonplace depravity of his surroundings?
I didn’t know this film’s origins before I watched this trailer. I hadn’t read any of the (glowing) reviews beforehand so I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that this film was based on a true story. This story was detailed in Billy Moore’s memoir A Prayer Before Dawn: A Nightmare in Thailand. Though the film loyally portrays the hellscape that is Klong Prem, its true horrors are only gently touched upon, as real life was unsurprisingly much worse.
The film never goes into great detail about Billy Moore’s life before the events of the film. There are no flashbacks to his previous life in Liverpool. We are never told how Billy ended up in Thailand. The film briefly introduces us to Billy as a fighter who doesn’t care whether he wins or loses. After he loses the fight, we see his hedonistic lifestyle in all its seedy neon-light glory. The cops barge in one morning and take away his freedom, we are never even told the charge for his imprisonment- which was for handling stolen goods. The rest of the film firmly focuses on his horrific experiences inside Klong Prem.
Though I’m not claiming this film to be in this classic league, the film takes a note from Martin Scorsese‘s Raging Bull that way. Like Scorsese’s biopic of Jake LaMotta, we are never given any comfortable Freudian explanations for Billy Moore’s troubling behavior. Instead it’s about the possibility of change, about his ability to transcend his demons and lead a better life.
Before Billy Moore’s trials and tribulations in Thailand, he had already spend years behind prison. Though never convicted of a violent crime, his drug-addiction motivated him to pursue a modest life of crime, becoming a second-rate thief and burglar. He sobered up and went to Thailand to make a new life for himself, to be away from the bad elements at home. There he found work using whatever skill he had, teaching English to native people, fighting in underground circuits, even working as a stuntman for 2008’s Rambo.
Eventually he relapsed into his old lifestyle. His thuggish instincts made him assemble a group of junkies and criminals around him. Soon enough he found himself in one of the worst prisons imaginable.
After serving three years in Klong Prem, he was transferred to serve the remaining months in England. He began writing about his experiences, even though he had no faith in himself as a writer. It resulted the memorable memoir that would be adapted on the screen.
He was heavily involved in the film-making process, being an advisor to the script and its lead star Joe Cole. Sadly, his story doesn’t have the most uplifting epitaph, as Billy Moore himself was arrested for burglary shortly before its premiere. Apparently he had relapsed again after being diagnosed of cancer. He was sentenced to the minimum term of two years and five months.
He’s both an uplifting reminder of the human spirit and a tragic example of the illness known as addiction. Let’s hope that he will conquer all the fights that come his way.
It’s apparent right from its beginning that the filmmakers were dedicated in being as authentic as possible. This is apparent in every aspect of the film, especially in its depiction of prison culture. Nothing feels like the product of Hollywood. Nothing is shiny, everything feels dirty and raw. The prisoners are continually soaked in sweat thanks to the humid air in Thailand. The film was actually filmed inside an abandoned prison and the cast is made up of numerous former prisoners. The characters feel like they are from this world. There is not a pretty boy inside. Everything feels lived in. In order for us to be more immersed in Billy Moore’s experience, most of the dialog scenes aren’t subtitled. We feel Billy Moore’s alienation from this world.
The same goes for its depiction of Muay Thai. Besides the excellent fight choreography- which is unfortunately not as filmed as satisfactory but I’ll get to that later-, the lengthy process before a fight, where see characters lathered up in Vaseline, warming up their muscles and later on do a particular meditative practice before a life audience. With its guerrilla-style filmmaking, it feels reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky‘s intimate look into wrestling with his 2008’s The Wrestler.
Joe Cole’s Performance is Impeccable
None of film’s authentic qualities would have worked without the commitment of its lead star Joe Cole. The film follows his journey from beginning to end, there’s no scene without him and he’s compelling in all of them. It’s a deeply demanding role, both physically but especially emotionally, as the character goes through hell, trying to maintain his sanity. The biggest fight comes from the inside and we see this throughout the whole film.
Sometimes his performance reminded me of another intimately powerful performance, of Harvey Keitel in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. This was another depraved character- though in a whole other level than Billy Moore- seeking some sort of redemption. Just like Keitel, Cole lays himself bare throughout the film- and we mean this literally too. And because of the intimacy involved in the part, we feel his pain throughout the movie and fear for his fate. It’s only during the climax that the character seems to find some tranquil relieve and when he does, it’s a beautiful sight for the viewer.
Some Minor Points
The points are minor yet has to be addressed. One minor point are the conventional elements of the story. There’s a third-act moment that doesn’t feel forced yet you wish the screenwriters would have subverted it. It’s understandable why it’s in there but it doesn’t need to be. It could have done something different.
There’s also the character of Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang) who feels written in just to give the main character a love interest. Once again, it’s understandable why they did this but the character itself isn’t given much else to do. She’s also part of the obligatory third-act and if the film could have only given the character something more to do, it wouldn’t have been an issue.
But the biggest issue are the fight scenes, which are are slightly disappointing. The fights are mostly done through close-ups and quick cuts which sometimes this makes it hard for the viewer to see what’s going on. The fights are quick and brutal, which comes with the sport but you wish the camera would just step away for a moment so we can actually see the full fight in motion. It gets better in the later fight- probably to establish Billy Moore’s sobriety — but it’s still slightly frustrating.
Through certainly not easy viewing, A Prayer Before Dawn is essential viewing for anyone interested in a visceral cinematic experience. It’s another one for A24‘s continuous winnings streak. The fight choreography is exquisite but the frantic editing unfortunately doesn’t do it justice. But it’s still essential viewing for Muay Thai fans as the film does give us an intimate glimpse in the sport’s spiritual foundations.
But if there’s one reason to watch this film it’s Joe Cole’s starring turn as Billy Moore. It’s one of the best performances of the year. This lad has got a bright future ahead of him.
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