A Prayer Before Dawn presents viewers with an interesting challenge early on. The film opens as Billy Moore (Joe Cole) prepares for a boxing match. We see him box- a clear amateur- and afterwards we see him visit a strip club and deal yaba, a tablet that combines methamphetamine and caffeine. Shortly after, he is arrested.
Billy Moore is not a character that is designed to garner sympathy. His poor choices land him in the Thai prison system as a Brit. He becomes a sheep amongst wolves. Tattooed, brutish inmates are packed alongside him like sardines, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire choosing to cast actual ex-inmates to add to the authenticity of his film.
When Billy first enters the room he sits, unbeknownst to him, beside a dead person. This just about sets the context for what to expect in this prison. All the while, Billy grapples with drug addiction as he enters and exits a hazy state of mind all throughout his time in prison. Acts of brutality such as prison rape stir him from his stupor for a second, only to nestle him further into dysphoria as he takes in the horror of the prison as well as the constant danger he is in. Joe Cole’s eyes are expressive as they display horror, hope, and suffering in what they see, and despite Cole’s broad frame and physical presence, one still can’t help but feel he is in grave danger. And for good reason.
Initially a memoir, A Prayer Before Dawn is adapted to great effect by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, taking advantage of the film medium when portraying prison. Very few subtitles are provided for the film despite the bulk of dialogue being in Thai. We are supplied with what we need to understand the story and nothing more. This enables us to feel how lost Billy is within the prison system and enhances the atmosphere of the film. With a scarcity of subtitles, A Prayer Before Dawn feels rather quiet and melancholy despite constant yelling and aggravation.
Though he depicts intense acts of violence, Sauvaire does not glorify violence, crime, prison, or even boxing itself. A Prayer Before Dawn drew in audiences in part for the promise of boxing matches yet Billy is no expert at boxing until undergoing training in the latter part of the film. It isn’t until his third fight where he actually wins a match, and even then, it’s almost at the cost of an ear. Despite experiencing physical harm while boxing, Billy discovers that boxing can help him fight his addiction and enables him to be transferred to the boxing quarters of the prison, a safer place to live. There he becomes eligible to represent his prison and compete in a boxing tournament held across Thai prisons.
While Billy’s reward for fighting may be sobriety and safety, our reward for following his journey is a simple smile late in the film. Understatement is an admirable quality of A Prayer Before Dawn and ensures the film maintains a great sense of realism. There shouldn’t be any glamour to Billy’s story and Sauvaire does not try to invent some for the sake of making a happier film.
Despite its merits, A Prayer Before Dawn is only part of the story. We are not provided with reason for why Billy is even in Thailand or certain other bits of important information over the course of the film (luckily a Google search can help given the publication of his memoir). Nonetheless, A Prayer Before Dawn deserves praise for its subversion of expectations of what a boxing film and prison film consists of.