A Prayer Before Dawn is steeped in the ruthless authenticity of brilliant documentary filmmaking. This is the kind of review I look forward to writing, where I can effuse praise and give you an absolute concrete recommendation of a film worth your time and energy. Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire is an excellent craftsman who cuts to the thick of the stories he directs. No exception here. Based on the memoir of the same name, A Prayer Before Dawnventures bravely into the darkest of places, a story about an addict boxer who finds redemption in the toughest of Thailand’s prisons through the discipline of Muay Thai.
Redemption stories cut the closest to our hearts. They swell with humanity as we find our central heroes arising over all adversity to find out what it truly means to overcome.
Billy Moore (Joe Cole) went to Thailand to escape his addictions but found he could not outrun them, becoming troubled once again by new forms of methamphetamine, which leads to his imprisonment in what’s famously dubbed the “Bangkok Hilton.” Inside one of the most ruthless hellholes of a jail in the world he faces more extravagant violence than he’s ever known. We share the confusion with him, wrapped in immeasurable filth and struggling with the language barrier, as Billy’s tossed around a cell rife with murder, suicide, and rape. Sometimes we have to look inward when we realize the people who are suffering the most—addicts with no way out—are put in league with the world’s most dangerous criminals.
In turn, Billy finds some element of salvation through joining the boxing gym. It is not an easy road, as he comes in with nothing and has to finesse his way into cigarettes which work as the local currency. What unfolds is a love story with an inmate who hands out the commissary and an amazing tale of resiliency against all odds.
The camera work swivels, sticks and moves, fluently bouncing along with the fights, and capturing many incredibly choreographed one-takes of the bouts. We see actor Cole effortlessly implementing Muay Thai technique to his character’s striking repertoire, working in knees, elbows, and kickboxing, while throwing out heavy handed hooks. It’s all thrilling to watch, intercut with stellar sound design that drops and rises with the ethos of its scenes. It’s inherently gripping, shot with the concerned objectivity of a documentary, akin to Sauvaire’s prior work on Johnny Mad Dog, about child soldiers in Africa. We face the same fear and confusion as Billy, the language going purposefully untranslated. But we know what it means when someone holds his face down beneath their knee and forces him to watch multiple guys have turns raping a cellmate. We do not need any spelled out language for the kind of abject horror Billy faces; it plays out dramatically enough through body language.
The brutalist filmmaking places us somewhere we do not want to be. When Billy’s festering inside a hole for punishment, we do not have to go there, but A Prayer Before Dawn allows us to watch what most films would leave out. Under the premise that all of the greatest sports movies are a victory of the human spirit, this film does one better, by creating the finest cross-blend of prison and sport we have on film. Straight to video-on-demand, A Prayer Before Dawn is one of the year’s greatest stories, and A24’s signature release for 2018.