There are boxing movies, there are jailbird dramas and there are hell-and-back memoir adaptations — A Prayer Before Dawn throws all three of these genres into a dingy cell together, forcing them to either make nice or beat each other senseless in a survival-of-the-fittest showdown. Thankfully, filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Bosch-like take on Billy Moore’s autobiography of life in a Thai prison allows each of these distinct narrative types to eventually bleed all over each other, sometimes literally. Moore (Joe Cole) was a Liverpudlian ex-pat living in Bangkok, fighting amateur Muay Thai bouts. Locked up in 2007, Moore quickly found himself dropped into a world where he barely spoke the language, didn’t know the rules and couldn’t tell which direction the next fist is coming from.
So he learned to rely on the kindness of strangers — notably a transgender convict named Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang) — the mercy of a gang led by a face-tattooed kingpin (Panya Yimmumphai) and the power of his fists. And for the first hour, Prayer settles into a semi-familiar, if deeply unsettling groove as this stranger in a strange land negotiates a world behind bars. An absolutely horrifying gang rape is followed by a tragedy, one presented with an eerie matter-of-factness. Constant threats of physical harm occupy the time between sucker punches and shiv brandishings. The fresh-fish convict can give as good as he gets, but Moore sticks out like a pale, hallow-eyed ghost, with the movie’s compositions turning his sheer difference from the general population into a beacon for beatdowns. Whenever it can, the film ixnays the subtitles and simply lets lines play out in their native tongue, sans translations. It’s one of several ways that Sauvaire keeps viewers feeling just as disoriented as his antihero.
Then, desperate for drugs, Moore takes on a job to rough up some Muslim convicts and nearly turns the assignment into a homicide. His spirit nearly breaks. He begs to start sparring in the prison gym — at which point we’re thrust into a pugilist-makes-good narrative, as the fighter trains hard, hits harder and earns the right to kickbox for the institution’s official team. You can point to a handful of other movies in which cons find release in the ring (see: Penitentiary, Undisputed), but those leaned towards being sports flicks that used jail life as a way to keep the stakes high. The difference here is that Sauvaire isn’t interested in this regional version of the sweet science per se; the French filmmaker simply needs it to immerse viewers deeper into a world of violence and pain, one knee to the ribs at a time. Even as the story builds to a final mano a mano, the movie is less invested in a win-or-lose outcome than in taking you along for the ride. You don’t truly know a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, then used those same shoes to kick people in the head repeatedly.
Which doesn’t mean the fight scenes aren’t complete knockouts (all apologies, we’ll see ourselves out now). They’re filmed with a claustrophobic, in-your-face intimacy and in long takes that make you feel you’re sweating it out next to Cole; there are shots that make you want to duck, so as to avoid being splattered with his blood. The actor, who’s costarred in the cult TV show/chic-period-haircut trendsetter Peaky Blinders and Black Mirror‘s most optimistic episode “Hang the D.J.,” trained in Muay Thai for six months, and it shows. You can see the exhaustion in the endless bouts he fights onscreen, the shock and rage as the 29-year-old dishes out and absorbs real blows. It helps that Cole is a naturally soulful actor, which keeps the commitment to the physicality in extremis from coming off as Method stunt-performing or laddish hard-man posturing. More importantly, he’s a ballast when things teeter close to the line between Eastern exotica and exploitation, pulling the focus back to Moore’s experience when the tendency to objectify a foreign, “othered” culture threatens to overwhelm the humanity.
If you were lucky enough to see Sauvaire’s previous feature Johnny Mad Dog (2008), in which filmgoers were virtually embedded with rebel fighters in Liberia and the director stocked his cast with reformed child soldiers, you could tell he valued you-are-there authenticity over social-issue handwringing. (The same notion applies here: Prayer is peppered with real-life ex-cons and was filmed in a former prison that had only recently been shut down.) Even more than verisimilitude, it’s the violent instinct among insular groups of men that fascinates him; you can practically feel the director leaning in whenever a group of thugs starts moving as one multi-limbed strike force or when Moore screams, “I need to fight!”
Yet neither Sauvaire nor his star are interested in boiling this cellblock survivalist tale down to a sociology lesson or an impressionistic mix of beauty and brutality. Near the end of the film, the prisoner is informed that his father has come to visit him. In a bit of meta-business, Dad is played by the real Billy Moore; he looks across at Cole, portraying the younger version of himself, and smiles, chuckles a bit. Staring at back at this kid, you sense that in that moment, he’s made peace with the person he once was. And you suddenly understand what a gift this film is to him — and to us.