After I watched A Prayer Before Dawn, I spoke to a friend of mine and they asked me how I would best describe the film without giving anything away. The words that came out of my mouth were strange at first, but not totally unexpected:
The Raid: Southpaw.
A Prayer Before Dawn tells the real-life story of Billy Moore (portrayed by Joe Cole, who you might recognise from Peaky Blinders), a British man who, after getting involved with matters of drugs and burglary, tries to reset his life in Thailand as a stuntman and a boxer. Things never really get better since we see Billy being arrested for gun offences and incarcerated in the Klong Prem prison in Bangkok. This is where the vast majority of the film is set, following our protagonist as he learns the martial art of Muay Thai and fights in tournaments in an attempt to earn his freedom.
There’s something quite visceral about A Prayer Before Dawn that is rarely seen in western cinema, a culture where we seem more than happy to engage in the stylised action scenes that populate every blockbuster and beyond, allowing ourselves to witness an ungodly amount of violence over the course of two hours. In A Prayer Before Dawn, however, the violence is the aspect of the feature that might make you turn your head away for a split second. In that, it reminds me a lot of the excellent The Raid films, where the gruesome violence is integral to every bit of the film, from camera work and framing to story and characters. A Prayer Before Dawn offers an almost intimate window into the violence, with director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire often placing the camera right next to or in between the fighters and that, allied with the fantastic and all too real sound design, will make it hard to deny that some people must have gotten hurt during this production.
As for the acting, Joe Cole blows it out of the park, in all honesty. A leading actor in all, the sensibility displayed during not only the high octane scenes but also the quiet, more intimate, moments amounts to a performance that is sure to turn heads. While the hardships and downfalls of this character are something many of us will not have any experience with, Cole makes it incredibly easy to believe, understand and symphatise with him. For this, Sauvaire also deserves recognition. The rest of the cast is mostly made up on newcomers, many of them achieved Muay Thai practitioners, which only helps with immersion on our part. The exception in here might be Vithaya Pansringarm, who was previously seen in Only God Forgives.
But what is by far the best aspect of this film, which, ironically, might be the make or break for audiences, is the choice to present the conversations in Thai unsubtitled. There’s a lot of it (which you should expect for a film set in Thailand), and it all helps create a sense of paranoia with both Billy and the audience. It’s a simple but effective technique to further place us in the protagonist’s shoes, and it works wonders. Like Billy, we end up trying to figure out what the conversations are about, hanging on inflections and tone to decipher the enigma and overcome the language barrier.
It’s nice to have a film with lower stakes, with a different pace, but no less dangerous or exciting. Whilst A Prayer Before Dawn will very often feel like a punch in the gut with its gruesome action, the character study on display will feel like a pack of ice on a bruise and a hot drink at the end of the day.
A Prayer Before Dawn is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!