THE STORY – The amazing true story of Billy Moore, an English boxer incarcerated in Thailand’s most notorious prison. Thrown into a world of drugs and violence, he finds his best chance to escape is to fight his way out in Muay Thai tournaments.
THE CAST – Joe Cole, Vithaya Pansringarm, Panya Yimmumphai & Somluck Kamsing
THE TEAM – Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire (Director) & Jonathan Hirschbein (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 117 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
Based on the true story of Billy Moore, a young English boxer who wound up serving a 3-year sentence in a Thai prison, “A Prayer Before Dawn” is being released by A24 and should by all accounts be a big hit within the independent filmmaking community. However, writer Jonathan Hirschbein and director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire fail in providing us with enough reasons to care for Billy as a character before he enters this brutal and unknown world. It’s a fatal flaw which seeps its way into every scene of “A Prayer Before Dawn” as we watch Billy endure tremendous hardship and is always in fear for his life but we are unable to connect to him in any sort of meaningful way.
Gritty and rough around the edges, “A Prayer Before Dawn” is shot primarily with hand-held cameras with an eye for authenticity. This is not a Hollywood-ized telling of Billy Moore’s story. This version is meant to exhaust us to the point of deterioration just like its main character. The majority of the people watching this movie will not understand the Thai language and because the film is primarily spoken in that language (with the occasional subtitle to help at crucial moments), we are just as confused as Billy is. We are thrust into this world alongside him (The narrative never breaks away from his point of view) unable to help in any way as we watch him struggle to get currency within the prison and fight to stay alive. Joe Cole gives himself over, physically, to the role. However, it’s not his fault that we’re unable to feel anything for Billy. Cole’s performance is an impassioned one, but it never rises to a certain level which could have elevated the material. He’s still a performer to watch out for
The film starts us off with little to no context as to who Billy is. We only know that he is a boxer and a drug addict. He is then arrested for presumably drug possession (although, the film doesn’t make that entirely clear either) and from there on out, he is brought to a foreign prison and we’re suddenly in the main part of the narrative. There are no flashbacks to help us understand who Billy once was so that we can get any semblance of a character arc. Instead, we get a forced relationship that slowly develops between him and a Thai female prisoner named Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang) and a mention or two of his father who remains off-screen until the end of the movie (and is played by the real-life Billy Moore). Billy eventually joins the prison’s gym, switching from boxing to muay-thai and comes to represent the prison due to his ability and endurance, culminating in a final fight with suicidal stakes.
All of this sounds very dramatic and would, of course, make for a great story for the screen, right? With it’s dark aesthetic, gritty realism and many tattooed faces of terror, “A Prayer Before Dawn” had all the makings to be something unique. However, a stripped-down narrative which fails to give its protagonist any character arc or backstory allowing us to connect with his experiences on a deeper level strips this true-life story of all of its potential. Instead, we’re left with an unpredictable, horrifying and realistic depiction of foreign prison conditions where the prisoners are forced to sleep on top of each other on the floor, random beatings and rape are considered routine and where drugs, cigarettes, and fighting are the only means of survival.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Joe Cole gives himself over, physically, to the role. A dark, unknown and unpredictable world.
THE BAD – We never get the opportunity to connect with the protagonist, thus robbing the film of any sort of emotional investment.