In A Prayer Before Dawn, an abusive upbringing defined by petty crime and drugs finds Billy Moore moved to Thailand during a spell of sobriety in his early twenties. After finding himself increasingly isolated in a country whose language he didn’t understand, Billy slipped back into his old habits and was handed a three year sentence for handling a stolen mobile phone in a notoriously hard-line jurisdiction.
We pick up Billy’s story in this most fragile period. Just arrested, he struggles with his demanding addiction in an over-crowded prison where corruption is rampant and detainees have to fight for water rations. He experiences no end in horrors, being subjected to solitary confinement, forced to witness gang rape, and spending his nights shoulder to shoulder with the most violent inmates of the prison, the samurais.
It’s all looking pretty bleak for our protagonist (played by Joe Cole of Peaky Blinders and Green Room fame), until he persuades the in-house boxing coach to let him train. Slowly but surely he finds his place in a group of like-minded fighters who forgive his tendencies to rage and encourage his mastering of Muay Thai techniques. Like all boxing movies, Billy’s story ends with The Big Fight, defined by fears for whether he’ll survive the ring with deteriorating health, and the possibility of freedom that a win could help facilitate. The final scene beautifully ties the story to reality and permits the audience one of only a handful of glimpses into Billy’s life before Thailand.
In an English language-free environment, Billy doesn’t have a translator and neither does the audience. We are left relying on actions, tones and facial expressions alone to pick our way through tense conversations and the ever-present dangers in the prison. The soundscape is brilliantly designed, layering animalistic grunts and ragged breath over traditional Thai melodies to locate beauty in chaotic surroundings. Long sequence shots of genuine fights, a supporting cast sourced from local ex-convict boxers, and a film set based at an abandoned prison add authenticity to a film that at times feels closer to documentary than fiction.
Was there a particular moral to this story? Not really. A young drug addict lands himself in chains and fights his way out of them. Though he gets his act together to represent his prison in the ring, he isn’t reformed – that comes after the end credits roll, where back in Liverpool the real Billy now supports others struggling with their demons.
Nonetheless, action fans will love what is probably one of the most realistic ring-side movies out there. A Prayer Before Dawn puts its audience cheek to jowl with the action, close enough to see the spittle fly and to hear each thunderous blow, without glorifying drugs and violence. If you can stomach that kind of thing, you’ll be rewarded with just under two hours of intense entertainment and perhaps a little more empathy than you started with.
Director: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Stars: Joe Cole, Vithaya Pansringarm, Panya Yimmumphai
Runtime: 116 mins