A Prayer Before Dawn (2017)

A Prayer Before Dawn first published by RealCrime Magazine

A Prayer Before Dawn tells the real-life story of Billy Moore, a muay thai boxer who was arrested in Thailand on charges of handling stolen goods and firearms, and sentenced to three years in prison. A long-term addict, he had already served time in Britain, and had he been caught in possession of his drug supply, he would have had a much longer conviction. In Chiang Mia prison, he is alienated both culturally and linguistically, in overcrowded conditions where rape, suicide and murder are commonplace. After degradation and despair, he grows determined not to go down without a fight, finding new purpose in the prison’s boxing team.

All this has been adapted from Moore’s 2012 memoir A Prayer Before Dawn: A Nightmare in Thailand, with Moore himself serving as a consultant for Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese’s screenplay – and even having a final-scene cameo. Authenticity of a different kind comes from the casting of non-professional Thai actors (apart from Only God Forgive‘s Vithaya Pansringarm as the warden) who were genuine ex-prisoners and boxing champions, and whose own experiences informed the script. What is more, the filmmakers were given permission to shoot in one of Thailand’s oldest prisons, near Bangkok, bringing a lived-in atmosphere to everything on screen.

Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire proved his credentials as a master of confronting realism with his debut feature, the anti-epic Johnny Mad Dog (2008), which tracked a young boy’s brutal initiation into a unit of child soldiers. His A Prayer Before Dawn similarly privileges the following shot, as cinematographer David Ungaro’s camera practically hugs Moore in his descent into, and advancement through, the penal system, immersing us fully in his experience: his panicky arrest, his uncomprehending introduction to the prison, his sweaty fear in a packed cell of tattooed ‘samurais’, his tender relationship with ‘ladyboy’ Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang), his punitive solitary confinements, his addiction and illness, and his decision to train as a boxer.

The bouts themselves – intensified encapsulations of Moore’s broader struggles – are shot extremely close, via lengthy, intimate takes that bring the viewer in tight for every bodyblow. Joe Cole gives a highly committed physical performance as Moore, whose survivalist progress – like that of all his fellow inmates – is written on the body in bruises, scars and eventually tattoos. This gradual disciplining of Moore makes for a knockout film.

© Anton Bitel