One giant bulging vein of a movie, “A Prayer Before Dawn” is only nominally about boxing. It’s also only nominally about its main character, and he’s in nearly every shot. Based on the eponymous 2014 memoir by drug addict-turned-convict-turned-champion boxer Billy Moore, the film is less interested in the how’s and why’s of the real figure’s story than it is in orchestrating one of the most unrelentingly intense symphonies of testosterone and rage ever put onscreen.
Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s film is not so much the story of a fighter as it is a story that wants to fight you.
The film lets you know it’s up to something different right from the start. It opens on a set of very familiar images of a fighter wrapping his hands, rubbing down his arms and readying himself for a match. The man is Billy Moore (Joe Cole, of “Peaky Blinders”) and from his accent we can tell that he’s an Englishman. From everyone else’s accent we know that he’s living in Thailand, and we never learn much else.
But then the Brit does something unexpected: He goes to the bathroom and freebases a hefty line of heroin. A scant few minutes later and Moore’s drug habit (he seems to be a dealer as well) has landed him in the slammer, and that’s where things get nasty.
Sauvaire depicts the Thai prison as an unforgiving society where all order is meted out via brutal physicality. The fact that Moore doesn’t speak the native tongue and that his heavily tattooed fellow inmates (almost all them unnamed and almost all of them real ex-cons) aren’t too hot in English makes, shall we say, physical expression all the more paramount. Moreover, there are no cells in this prison hellscape, so all the inmates are at each other’s sides and at each other’s throats 24 hours a day.
To represent a world where violence is the only form of communication, Sauvaire does away with conventional filmic approaches. There are essentially no “scenes” as we come to expect to them for at least the first hour of the film. The director just cuts from action to action, often picking up the next one in media res. He favors nimble, handheld cameras and intense close-ups of bulging muscles in quick array.
It ends up feeling like an hour-long montage of dominance and submission, of physical and sexual assault. It’s as if you had taken a Terrence Malick film, gorged it on poppers and GHB, and then replaced the whispery voiceover with a wall of screams.
Moore seeks occasional solace in the heroin he continues to pick up from one of the guards (“Only God Forgives” star Vithaya Pansringarm) and in the arms of another inmate, the “ladyboy” Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang). The scenes Fame and Moore share give the viewers a reprieve as well, offering a warmer color palate and – more importantly – real dialogue. The fact that Fame is reasonably proficient in English allows the pair to actually converse, and the film effectively puts us in Moore’s shoes as we cling to those islands of serenity before crashing back into the sea of savagery.
There is an underlying narrative structure to whole bloody affair. Moore ends up taking up boxing and eventually excelling in the ring not only so he can move to a safer prison bloc, but also as a way to channel and structure the inchoate violence that becomes his only means of survival. Though the film does have a consequential third-act fight, as basically all boxing films do, it never feels like a full-on entry into that fairly well delineated genre. The boxing is almost incidental to the narrative; though the championship fight comes towards the end, it never feels like a climax because the film never really feels like it’s building towards it.
Better put, that Moore is fighting a championship bout is less important than the fact that he takes something oppressive and turns it into something liberating by sheer repetition. As a coup of purely physical storytelling, “A Prayer Before Dawn” feels like a blood brother to Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s 2014 Critic’s Week winner “The Tribe.” As a fellow prison movie that turns around one really ripped ‘bod, Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” wouldn’t be a terrible comparison either.
That being said, don’t expect Sauvaire’s film to launch Cole the way Refn’s film launched Tom Hardy. Though Cole gives a ferociously committed performance, he’s mostly committed to playing ferocious. That’s entirely by design in this muscular film. Like any mean prizefighter, it’s admirable from afar. But not everyone will want to spend two hours with it, locked in a room together.
“A Prayer Before Dawn” premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.