Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s A Prayer Before Dawnis one of those rare films that is able to plunge the audience into every single emotion encountered by the protagonist; fear, anger, alienation, claustrophobia, the viewer suffers from it all. This is incredibly exhausting viewing, but for those whose endurance is rarely tested by cinema, this will reward investment.
Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders, Green Room) delivers a jaw-dropping performance as real-life English boxer Billy Moore, who is incarcerated in a Thailand prison for possession. He is a man plagued by demons and addiction, of which have moulded him into a raging and unpredictable machine of self-destruction and violence. Thrown into this hideous world of criminal impulse, Billy must try his best to survive, knowing his best chances are to enter the Muay Thai boxing tournaments and prove his worth. To survive, his remaining discipline is pitted against his enslavement to drugs and savage temper, knowing full-well that the opportunity will prove to be his only escape – both alternatives, however, threaten to destroy him, with the opportunity for freedom offered by only one winding and dangerous road to triumph.
There are two main contributors to the film’s success. The first is quite obviously Cole’s performance; it is remarkable. He is able to portray frustration and despair masterfully, offering audiences a self-destructive performance that is unlikely to be eclipsed by that found within the prison sub-genre any time soon. It is a role which demands everything from the actor, and Cole surrenders everything, amounting to a physical, emotional, and consuming screen presence, rarely appearing outside of frame. Enabling cole’s abilities is Sauvaire’s decision to depict everything that the protagonist experiences with relentless realism. The behaviour of the inmates is hard to stomach, and the audience falls witness to every disgusting detail courtesy of Savuaire’s fearless direction, refusing to disguise the horror of the situation. Violence, rape and drug-use are all exposed through kinetic and frenzied camerawork, as this material is often shot through a series of extreme close-ups, tracking shots, and dizzying camerawork which lends the impression of the lens as a curious and sadistic prisoner, trying to soak in every vivid detail of the carnage around them. As it should be, the violence is always sickening.
The narrative is made even more terrifying because of the absence of subtitles, meaning the viewer is left clueless to everything that Billy is unable to understand. Due to this terrifying lack of communication, the vicious prison environment is presented as even more animalistic, in which actions are the only way to interact or argue. The effects of this decision are much more frightening in the first half of the film, of which plays out like a prison film in the vein of Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, or more recently, David Mackenzie’s Starred Up. However, the prison of A Prayer Before Dawnis much more extreme than those exhibited in these two films, and Sauvaire is sure to confirm this by amplifying the dangers of the habitat he is unveiling. The second half gradually begins to feel more like a conventional boxing film, and this does take away some of the danger, which the filmmaker is sure to restore for the film’s climax to make sure audiences are still concerned. The training sequences begin to feel a little repetitive, although, they precede some stunningly choreographed boxing matches.
The film’s first half is unbelievably intense, and will shock even the most seasoned of cinemagoers. As we fear for his safety less at the hands of the more despicable prisoners, the film loses some of its power, yet nevertheless, continues to hold attention and showcase the skill of all those creatively involved. In the wake of a traumatic conclusion, there is no denying that A Prayer Before Dawn has been a difficult but thoroughly beneficial struggle, and that is because Sauvaire’s film takes us on a stranglehold tour of hellishness in a way that only cinema is capable of. This is a film that manages to make you feel as present as humanly possible, no matter how uncomfortable, you will feel every second.