Based on the true-life memoir by Billy Moore and primarily set in Bangkok’s infamous Klong Prem prison, A Prayer Before Dawn is concerned above all with ensuring that we share its main character’s sense of dislocation and entrapment. A heroin-addicted boxer living in Thailand, Billy (Joe Cole) is arrested for robbery and possession of narcotics and thrown into Klong Prem and plunged into an ultraviolent turf war. As seen here, the prison is a festival of heavily tattooed, sweaty, barely clothed male bodies that sleep nearly stacked on top of one another, shoulder to shoulder, on the floor of a single room. Billy speaks only a little Thai, and the film initially refuses to provide English subtitles, placing non-Thai-speaking audiences in his shoes. Like Billy, many of us will have to closely scrutinize the body language of the prisoners, attempting to parse friend from foe. In a clever and resonant touch, subtitles begin to appear as Billy grows more confident living within the prison.
Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire shoots the prison house in hard and close angles, emphasizing the oppressiveness of this sea of bodies. (A pair of fighting fish are eventually offered up as a metaphor for the men themselves.) Many scenes have a nightmarish gravity, such as when Billy, in withdrawal, begins to sleep on the shoulder of an oddly tranquil man who’s revealed to be a corpse. On one of his first nights in prison, Billy is cornered at knife point and forced to watch as the cell block leader initiates a gang rape of another new prisoner, and Sauvaire emphasizes the almost surreal casualness of this atrocity, in which the thrusting of the cell block leader’s pelvis comes to suggest an awful yet logical extension of the endless poking and prodding that the men endure anyway. The rape, which inspires the victim to hang himself the following morning, is a warning to Billy, who exhibits a fierce, prideful machismo that tenuously earns the respect of the other prisoners.
A Prayer Before Dawn, though, has a neurotic relationship with the two genres that prominently inform it: prison and boxing films. Those familiar with these sorts of narratives know that Billy will inevitably use his boxing experience to survive the ordeal of imprisonment, which in this case means joining the prison’s Muay Thai league. Sauvaire attempts to honor and transcend these genres more or less simultaneously. Before the initiation of the redemption arc, we’re subjected to more than an hour of purposefully repetitive ultra-masculine toxicity, which, while ferociously staged, scans as an act of delaying the inevitable indulgence of clichés, which aren’t confidently delivered.
When Billy begins to train, Sauvaire mostly elides the details of how Billy softens and matures as his fury is afforded the direction of discipline. The scenes of the young Brit training are precise in their sense of behavior and physicality, savoring the details of how the prison trainer instructs Billy to temper his fearlessness with restraint and strategy. There’s an especially fascinating sequence in which Billy learns to refine the energy he expends in his kicking technique, but the film could use more of these moments.
Another elision more significantly mars A Prayer Before Dawn. When Billy befriends and romances a beautiful transgender woman, Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang), Sauvaire unfortunately stints on the details of their lovemaking, which could’ve offered a window into Billy and Fame’s communion as well as their pervading loneliness. The filmmaker is more comfortable dramatizing the prison rape, of course, which exists confidently within the prison genre’s macho fuck-or-be-fucked spectrum. In the end, the film’s devotion to the hellish-ness of Klong Prem comes to feel smugly narrow. Compared to the rich and surprising emotional textures of, say, Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory, A Prayer Before Dawn rates as only technically impressive.
While A Prayer Before Dawn’s final scene achieves a sense of emotional interiority that eludes much of the rest of the film, it’s too little too late. When Billy finally sees his father, who has been referred to throughout the narrative, the latter is played by the real-life Moore, who looks at a simulation of his younger, troubled self, presumably achieving the catharsis for which the young Billy has so clearly yearned. In this bending of the forms of documentary and fiction, Sauvaire’s film briefly achieves a bracingly surreal grace, breaking free of its masochistic death obsession.