A Prayer Before Dawn

Brutal, and unrelenting, but also a hellish true story told with conviction.

As much as I love the Rocky films and the franchise offspring Creed, I must admit that A Prayer Before Dawn makes those films seem like feel-good Hollywood fairytales. And as much as I recommend this film for its cinematic achievements, I must also say that this film isn’t for everyone. Why? As a brutal assault on the senses, there isn’t a single moment that allows the viewer to think “it’s only a movie”. Your only choice is to either look away, or absorb every horrific moment and wish it never happens to you or anyone you know.

Based on the memoirs of British boxer Billy Moore, his heroin addiction and ensuing drug bust in Bangkok, the film begins with his arrest and incarceration in a Thai prison. Not only is Billy (Joe Cole) the only white face in a prison cell with dozens of other hardened local criminals, the deplorable living conditions and lack of any sort of law and order would comparatively make life in Alcatraz seem like a privilege. And then, during his first night in, Billy is held with a knife to his throat and forced to watch an act of gut-wrenching, nerve-rattling brutality. French director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire uses this scene to set the tone for the rest of the film where it remains consistently bleak and unapologetic. After days of copious cruelty and violence (or months, as a timeline is not revealed), Billy realises that his survival depends on his skills as kick-boxer. With sympathetic help from a lady-boy he befriends in jail, Billy starts training as a Muay Thai fighter. It might just let him live another day.

Billy’s training scenes are a stark contrast to the trumpet blaring training montage in any of the Rocky films. That’s because this film isn’t about the glory of winning a fight but solely about staying alive. Which is why A Prayer Before Dawn is first and foremost a survival film, followed by a blood sport film as a close second. Green Room actor Cole is remarkable as Billy and the main reason for recommending this film despite its ugly premise. Somewhere along the film’s two-hour runtime, Cole’s Billy transforms from a beat-down British expat to a fighter releasing his fears and frustration into every explosive blow with brute force. It’s a physically demanding role that Cole gets right but also helped by the jarring camerawork that puts us in the ring and under the skin of relentlessly pounded flesh. It all feels so authentic and immersive that one can’t really say if they are acting or beating each other senseless. Add to that, the film was not only shot in an actual Bangkok prison, Cole was also working with real life prisoners who were still under detention.

For the millions of tourists who visit Thailand every year, this film doesn’t paint a pretty picture and neither does it intend to. Like Nicolas Winding Refn’s moody Only God Forgives, Sauvaire has a story to tell about Bangkok’s seedy underworld that most tourists don’t often see. The anti-drugs message is severe and the price to pay is extreme, but as a real life story told with conviction, A Prayer Before Dawn is about humanity’s most defining virtue of persistence even in the most hellish of places.

Rating: ★★★★☆

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.