A Prayer Before Dawn, directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire (Johnny Mad Dog) and adapted from Billy Moore’s book of the same name, details the story of Billy as he lives a life of excess in Thailand but subsequently gets incarcerated in a Thai prison for his drug dealing.
From the start you are thrown into the deep end, but even without any kind of backstory or context and very little dialogue you get a feel for Billy’s lifestyle before you can really get a grasp of who he is and what he is about. The situation is well defined through the imagery and camerawork. When the shit goes down you are left in no doubt about the seriousness of Billy’s predicament.
Being locked up in a Thai prison is an eye-opening experience for Billy but he does seem to quickly adapt to this new kind of hell. Billy is a born rule breaker and has always been a bit rough, with only having boxing in the past to channel his aggression and exuberance. His ego does put him into trouble at times and due to his untethered behaviour before his incarceration he is a victim of his drug habit. The prison conditions are terrible, the small shacks they are housed in are cramped and way too overcrowded and inhabitants are left at the mercy of the shack “leader” and his gang.
Billy’s confrontational persona, as expected, gets him into trouble repeatedly. Reality eventually hits home of his situation, the harshness of this life, being at the mercy of the other inmates and the gangs that rule the roost. He is isolated and alone and he stands out like a sore thumb.
Throughout the film there is a decision to not use subtitles for the majority of the Thai language parts. As awkward as that is to begin with you do make sense of the gist of the conversation at times and garner some understanding of what it happening. It works to further the disorientation and disconnect that is affecting Billy, and also the viewer, to feel on the outside, a foreigner unable to understand the local customs. With so much of the dialogue and context conveyed through body language or signalling it makes sense that this film concentrates on the physical aspects of Billy’s story but maybe at the expense of some deeper motivation/meaning.
Whilst deep in this hell-hole, Billy sees a way to make his life easier by joining the prison Thai boxing team with all their preferential treatment. Again, as the foreigner he is frowned upon and castigated by the other boxers but does manage to eventually work his way into training and fighting with the team.
The initial fight sequences, before being locked up, are cut quickly and numerously and because of that they are very disorienting, possibly a considered decision to reflect Billy’s state of inebriation and lack of focus. However, due to this style there is no continuity to allow the appreciation of this fighting art form. In contrast with this, his first proper prison fight the camerawork more controlled and more continuous shots are used but still manages to be frantic. You get a greater understanding of the process and action but still very close up camera work to feel the blows land. It all feels very sanitised compared to the harshness of the real prison life still going on around him.
In complete contrast to this horrendous existence there are a few moments that stand out in opposition to the tone that has been set. The one that struck me hardest is a prison tattooing scene which manages to be a tender moment, a bonding of brothers and a welcoming of this outsider into their midst. The other is a blossoming relationship between Billy and another inmate “ladyboy” called Fame.
Having Joe Cole cast as Billy is a good choice as he goes about the role with dedication (he trained intensely for months to get into shape for this role) and his fight scenes are, overall, well done and feel realistic. He plays Billy very expressionless, only briefly showing some emotion, usually as things take a turn for the worse. In terms of authenticity the choice to use real inmates who have served time in Thai prisons certainly adds to the tone of A Prayer Before Dawn, and vastly increases the number of tattoo’s on screen.
The pacing, however is a bit slow at times and with no dialogue to push things along it can drag and ends up feeling a little bit directionless. Due to this it ends up lacking in tension and the atmosphere isn’t as hopeless and perilous as it possibly could be. The fighting doesn’t feel concussive enough throughout, or gritty enough and this is none-more exemplified than a moment where Billy violently beats up another inmate which makes the fight sequences pale in comparison. Billy is almost the only character that you can attach yourself to and he isn’t compelling enough to gain sympathy towards, and hence worry about his situation. Once again it seems that a trailer has mislead me after seeming a lot more violent and vicious and actually ended up being a quite different type of film, more about addiction and the fallout than the fighting or the prison lifestyle.
I am reading the book that this is based on at present and it is far more wide reaching and far more interesting than what this film turned out to be. With more background to the character of Billy Moore, more information as to his personality, his motivations and his psyche it all feeds into how he behaves in A Prayer Before Dawn. All of this is missing from this film and all would much improve the connection and understanding of the character portrayed in this film. Such as: coming from a broken home, having an abusive father, previous prison stays, being a recovering addict and a youth boxing champion. All of these play a part in this film and help to define who Billy is but without that extra context the on-screen action is mostly meaningless and lacking that connection.
Originally published on Set the Tape