The history and evolution of film as an art form can be marked by the inventions and innovations of the past. Sync-sound ushered in a focus on dialogue and sound, CGI allowed for the expansion of the set beyond the limits of reality, and VR is posed to immerse audiences within content in whole new ways. These inventions often feel like an integral part of contemporary cinema, but sometimes a film comes along that says to hell with it all and trims the fat away; choosing to focus on what made cinema amazing in the first place-a moving image on a screen. Jean-Stephen Sauvaire’s A Prayer Before Dawn is one such film, and one of the most gripping, visceral pieces of visual storytelling to hit theaters this yearr.
The film, based on the memoir of the same name, follows Billy Moore (Joe Cole), a methamphetamine addicted British national who finds himself fighting for survival in a maximum security Thai prison after the law catches up to his various criminal dealings. Forced to deal with gang warfare, a serious language barrier, and his drug addiction, Billy eventually joins the prison boxing team, but his new focus on fighting in sanctioned inter-prison tournaments may only offer a limited reprieve from the danger of prison life.
Filmed in a real decommissioned Thai prison and mostly populated with current and ex-convicts, the world of Dawn is an extremely brutal one. The camera exaggerates the cramped and crowded cell blocks, often isolating characters through bars or crowds of other inmates. Every-and I mean every-dark plot point related to prison life is shown in stark, unflinching detail. Dialogue is sparse, and is mainly delivered in unsubtitled Thai by Billy’s fellow inmates, creating an extreme feeling of disconnect while allowing the power of Sauvaire’s visuals to shine through. This barebones form of storytelling does require the viewer to maintain strong focus, as it could be very easy to miss key story points here. In a way the film uses this to force you to watch the horrors of the prison, lest one miss a necessary piece of the plot.
Although the film mainly focuses on its visual elements, we do get some sound based storytelling cues. These mainly come in the form of noise coming from outside the prison walls, reminding us and the characters inside that the world exists and is moving on without them. The general sound design is fantastic, especially during the fight sequences presented later in the film. Claustrophobic in-ring camera moves are coupled with the roar of the crowds, the hard smacks of the fighter’s blows, and traditional muay thai fight music, adding to the chaos pictured on screen.
There has been positive press regarding Joe Cole’s portrayal of Billy Moore since the film’s premiere at Cannes last year, and I certainly agree with the positive press he has received. Cole exudes both strength and fear consistently throughout the film, adding to the feeling of uncertainty thrust upon the viewer. Praise should also be given to Cole’s costars: the Thai prisoners who draw on their previous experiences and knowledge to great effect. Dawn never feels like a film largely populated by non-actors.
As far as biopics go, A Prayer Before Dawn seems to only provide a glimpse into the experience of the real life Billy Moore, and quickly glosses over plot points other films may chose to focus on. It’s never really explained what exactly Moore was doing in Thailand, what his history with boxing was, and why he was estranged from his family (a point that is brought up multiple times, but never really explored). The small subplot of Moore’s relationship with a trans inmate (Pornchanok Mabklang) offers a slight break from the chaos, but ultimately serves as more of an aside than actual story beat.
Despite the vague nature of the plot I’m not sure if the muted story beats are a serious negative. This glimpse into Moore’s time in prison left me wanting to learn more about the real story, and I found myself ordering a copy of the source material after viewing Dawn.
Nonetheless, the film straddles the line between arthouse and grindhouse wonderfully, and I’m excited to see what the cast and crew do next.
A Prayer Before Dawn is currently playing in select theaters across the United States, and is available to rent on a number of online platforms.