A Prayer Before Dawn - 2018
Director(s): Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Writer(s): Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese
Cinematography by: David Ungaro
Editor(s): Marc Boucrot
Cast: Joe Cole, Pornchanok Mabklang, Vithaya Pansringarm and Panya Yimmumphai
This movie is one of the hardest watches of the year. While it rides the story beats of a sports movie, it’s set against the backdrop of one of the most visceral and heart-wrenching prison movies from the past few years. Boxing is usually used, both in movies and in real life, as a mean to better your current situation. It’s the wind that rights the sails of the lost souls in the streets and gives them a sense of worth, work ethic and a brotherhood outside of their bad influences. In this movie, it also gives our protagonist a sense of safety, since being part of the Mauy Thai Boxing team isolates you from some of the horrors and violent realities associated with prison. This is also a based on a true story, adding to the horror stories our protagonist faced.
The story centers around Billy Moore (Joe Cole), a kid from Liverpool who ends up in Bangkok after a string of crimes back home. Moore falls back on his old ways and gets thrown in a Thai jail for selling drugs. Once in jail, he is faced head-on with drugs, violence, murders, suicide and rape, among other things, creating a sense of despair and dread to an already isolating and terrifying experience in a foreign country. Trying to find a light at the end of the tunnel, he looks to the Mauy Thai Boxing team as he used to be a boxer back home. This is far from a feel-good story, far from the perfect summer movie and far from what I would call a good time at the movies. But it’s so well made, acted and executed that it makes me want to watch it again despite how uncomfortable I was for most of the runtime.
Quick note: the sound design and the score of this movie is pitch perfect. The way they took out key noises during the drug scenes or when a heavy punch landed on our lead helped the audience both identify and understand the situation he was in.
Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire took us by the hand and dropped us off at a prison and never let us think for one second that nothing bad was going to happen to us. With selective subtitles, we are left in the dark, just like our protagonist, as to what is being said and planned around him. Every stare and every movement feels like a threat to the wellbeing of Billy, and after what he witnesses on the first night he and the audience are on high tension till the very end. Sauvaire and cinematographer Ungaro shot this movie in a way that was suffocating and intrusive, perfectly recreating how Billy felt inside the prison. Almost all the scenes are shot at a close medium of our lead, making things around him seem as if they are closing in and there is nowhere to go.
Quick note: my biggest issue with this movie, and it’s a small one at that, is the sped-up punches during the fights. They clearly trained the lead and the stunt doubles how to fight and they are well choregraphed chaotic fights, but from time to time you see a sped-up hit as to make it seem more impactful or powerful. It took me out a bit of the immersion. Small qualm but worth mentioning.
A Prayer Before Dawn is a prison movie that plays out like a sports movie. It has a redemptive arc inside this gut wrenching, realistic portrayal of what it would be like to be completely isolated, both in language and in human rights, from the world thanks to the life you chose to live. By taking the audience through this rollercoaster of prison life, you are that more invested in the final redemptive match and the payoff is far greater. Joe Cole’s central performance was phenomenal as he was our sole vehicle into this foreign world. Sauvaire’s direction elevates the source material and I look forward to watching his next project. Sauvaire is why I love movies.
A Prayer Before Dawn is currently playing in theaters. If you can stomach all that I said above, it’s definitely worth a watch.
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