A Prayer Before Dawn Review

A Prayer Before Dawn
The true story of British drug addict Billy Moore (Joe Cole), who found himself in a brutal Thai prison. Initially treated warily by his fellow inmates, he wins their respect — and maybe a chance of freedom — by becoming a kickboxer, and in the process learns there are alternatives to self-destruction.

by Andrew Lowry |
Published on
Release Date:

20 Jul 2018

Original Title:

A Prayer Before Dawn

There’s a school of thought that believes virtual reality is eventually going to replace movies. If anybody says that to you, sit them down in front of this brutal but moving prison drama that’s so immersive, you half expect to be hit by gobbets of sweat and blood during its fight scenes. It’s a lot more effective than strapping on a headset, that’s for sure.

A Prayer Before Dawn

On paper, A Prayer Before Dawn sounds like it could be a direct-to-streaming hit for those who found Nick Love’s Outlaw a tad cerebral. A cross-breed of the uplifting sporting-redemption and less uplifting prison-is-horrible genres, in which an English junkie punches his way to glory in a fist-meld of Rocky, Only God Forgives and Midnight Express, it’s an awkward sell, but the delivery here is what elevates this material beyond a mere meatgrinder.

What makes this truly special is the compassion and wisdom on display.

Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire is best known for his punishing 2008 boy soldier drama Johnny Mad Dog, but he got his start in documentaries, and here there is a similar lack of compromise as there was with his early work about the Colombian drug trade.

From Billy’s (Cole) one-take kickboxing bouts to the truly horrific conditions in the prison (access to a chair is considered a luxury), absolutely no punch is pulled in conveying to you what it’s like being locked up in one of the worst prisons in the world. The sound is key: paradoxically, for this level of realism you need to amp up the creativity, and the games played with sound here would have David Lynch himself clapping through clouds of fag smoke. Joe Cole’s phenomenal performance helps, too: speaking volumes with barely any dialogue, his body conveys with every move Billy’s growing confidence and thirst for redemption.

Still, convincing your fight-or-flight instincts that the murders, fights, rapes and more on screen are really happening before you is one thing. What makes this truly special is the compassion and wisdom on display.

Less obvious is the generosity of Sauvaire’s eye, finding depths in the kind of face-tattooed criminals plenty of films would use as scary exoticism and nothing more. Billy himself is at the rock bottom of all rock bottoms and is the kind of figure most well-meaning folk would cross the road to avoid. This superb film dares to have a soppy core that insists that, despite the horrors we may face along the way, nobody can be written off — and in its own way is quietly but genuinely spiritual.

For all the flying fists and the hero’s nightmarish predicament, the notions of redemption examined here are plenty deep. Add that to the bone-crunchingly effective technique and flawless lead performance, and you have yourself something very rare: a testosterone-driven narrative that’s about nurturing, rather than destruction. And one that achieves a bleeding-knuckled profundity.
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