Some films don’t offer stories, so much as an experience. Now, A Prayer Before Dawn has a story — it was told in Billy Moore’s 2014 best-seller A Prayer Before Dawn: My Nightmare In Thailand’s Prisons — but it’s by and large the least compelling part of Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire‘s adaptation, which made a splash earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival. A true story, the film chronicles a young, English boxer as he rises above his own addiction and the degradation he faces in a Thai prison by devoting himself to Muay Thai.
That’s an interesting story, but the arc of the novel, as well as the one crafted here by screenwriters Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese, is all too familiar. The beats, the archetypes, and the emotional turns unfold with a perfunctory sense of obligation. Billy, a meth-addicted troublemaker, struggles against violent inmates and corrupt guards at the prison while struggling to maintain his drug habit. After hitting rock bottom, he worms his way into the Muay Thai boxing program, where he finds that there are benefits to him winning in the prison’s tournaments. He embarks on a road to recovery, and even strikes up a thin romance with fellow inmate Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang). The stakes are heightened by scuffles over drug money and his own medical issues, but the final act unfolds pretty much as you’d expect, especially in light of its source material’s existence.
Thankfully, A Prayer Before Dawn avoids the more ubiquitous tropes of this type of redemption story. Aside from the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Fame subplot, Billy lacks in close confidantes, mentors, and familial tensions, making him something of an isolated figure in a sea of tattooed, claustrophobic flesh. This proves to be refreshing, as his strength doesn’t come from pep talks or a distant love, but from his own sense of dogged determination, which goes a long way in helping to define a character that Sauvaire never grants a clear backstory.
The director isn’t concerned with the trappings of the genre so much as he is with Billy’s physical experience; his camera routinely lingers over Billy’s scarred, battered body, its accumulation of blood, bruises, and grime, and the flex of his muscles as he punches, grapples, and kicks. Barely a word of dialogue is spoken throughout the film’s first hour, and the Thai that is spoken is only occasionally subtitled, meaning that much of the storytelling unfolds via body language and the sloppy, ultra-realistic fights that break out both in the ring and out. The relentless emphasis on physical pain isn’t easy to watch, but it does speak to the story’s themes and build its sense of character. Billy is a character shaped by pain, and to watch him endure, heal, and suffer is to also watch him grow physically and emotionally. In other films, it would be the fellowship he finds among his fellow boxers that offers Billy salvation, but here that fellowship serves as a byproduct of his own self-actualization.
As such, the weight of the film’s success rests almost solely on the shoulders of star Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders), who not only immerses himself in the film’s grueling milieu, but also grippingly conveys the confusion, fear, and grit that accompany the prison’s myriad terrors. It helps that Sauvaire’s camera works to continually illustrate Billy’s emotional state, oscillating between nauseatingly shaky shots and those more placid and secure. Depending on Billy’s sense of control, fights find the lens shuddering with fear or confidently pivoting with the action. It’s that sense of synchronicity between star and filmmaker that gives the film its impact.
A Prayer Before Dawn also benefits from the prisoners cast alongside Cole, many of whom were former inmates themselves. The full-body and face tattoos seen on Billy’s cellmates are real, and the sheer number of actual bodies Sauvaire recruited serve to not only convey the actual experience of being in such a prison, but the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. That claustrophobia, however, is unfortunately infectious, and there’s something undeniably exhausting about watching Billy’s story. The film’s lack of identifiable character and relief make it easy to see why so many filmmakers sink back into those old tropes; films are not real life, after all, and viewers need to breathe.
What makes A Prayer Before Dawn so powerful is also what makes it so punishing. Take that how you will.