Pulling no punches in telling the true story of Scouse ne’er-do-well Billy Moore’s three years in Bangkok’s infamous Klong Prem Prison, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s A Prayer Before Dawn wins points for its unerring depiction of the brutality of incarceration in Thailand.
The film is an unflinching, punishing spectacle which drops us in to the thick of a disorienting situation with little to no preamble. Opening frames of deep breaths and preparations for a fight give way to a blur of fists as Billy (Joe Cole) puts the tools of his trade to crunching use. His moonlighting activity, the selling of Thai meth/caffeine concoction ‘yaba’ to dingy strip club goers, soon sees him apprehended by the authorities and thrown on the back of a van. This tornado hurtles through dizzyingly quickly and we soon find ourselves behind bars, the camera following Billy at close quarters at all times.
Who is this young man? How has he found himself in Thailand selling drugs? Where are his friends, his family? Though the slightest cracks in a stoical exterior will release tiny bits of personal information as his time inside wears on, no backstory is provided; all that matters from here on out is living day by day and, if necessary, hour by hour. The grinding monotony, and persistent danger of his situation are reflected in Cole’s extraordinary physical performance. This is in no way limited to his prowess in the ring, and is truly devastating to behold.
Himself addicted to the substance which saw him arrested, Billy’s blind fury and short fuse do not endear him to the heavily tattooed men with whom he shares extremely cramped conditions, sleeping cheek by jowl like sardines. In choosing not to subtitle portions of the early exchanges between Billy’s fellow detainees, Sauvaire effectively isolates him in ignorance as well as the claustrophobic confines of their overcrowded hut. A brutal rape scene, which Billy is forced to observe close at hand, makes the price of his silence shockingly clear. The guards show little mercy and their hypocrisy is typified by one their midst running his own internal drug business, despite the ruthless punishment to which any abusing the substance are submitted if found in possession.
Amid the horror and violence, Billy’s cheeky grin and twinkling eye wins favour, momentary affections, and a credit of cigarettes from Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang), who works at the prison store. This, and his ability to be part of the prison boxing team, offer respite, an opportunity, but on a more basic level a means of survival. The heat, the violence, grimy conditions, bitter confinement and continual air of menace make A Prayer Before Dawn a debilitating, pulverising two hours. These elements stand toe-to-toe with the slightest flickering of humanity and an indomitable will to overcome, and combine to make Sauvaire’s film a gripping fight for survival.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens