A Prayer Before Dawn movie review: Courageous and feral, this 'prison film' is an enriching experience
In A Prayer Before Dawn, his sophomore feature effort set in a notorious Thai prison, director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire gets a lot of things right. By their nature, prison films lend themselves to explorations of claustrophobia, human depravity, fear and violence. An unavoidable sense of physicality lurks throughout the narrative. The threat of violence remains imminent. There is all that and more in A Prayer Before Dawn.
But Sauvaire’s film decides to reach for the core of its protagonist’s being through his body. Billy Moore, an Englishman who practices Muay Thai boxing in Thailand, lands up in Klong Prem after being caught in possession of narcotics. The moment our amateur fighter tries to hide his stash up his anal cavity, we are introduced to a character whose sole instrument is his body. It is his weapon, his home, his friend and foe.
Billy’s body then travels to prison, falls into and survives through turf wars, briefly forgets its agency, regains it through intense training and eventually leads Billy out of prison and back to the warmth of his home. Sauvaire’s camera dutifully frames Billy and his fellow inmates’ bodies ravenously and caressingly through the hellish environs of the prison. It never shies away from the brutality that awaits the relatively weak. It takes its time floating through the sea of flesh and bone before arriving at Billy’s being trapped and locked inside his body. For it’s only when he stops abusing his body and learns to use it as his primary tool that we begin arriving at who he is.
A Prayer Before Dawn revels in the gradual interiorisation of the landscape of the body. It is a brave, brave choice for Sauvaire to make. He even goes to the lengths of dispensing of subtitles for the Thai parts at the beginning of the film. Billy’s words come in fits and spurts. He mumbles and fumbles with them. Even his talking can be interpreted as poorly modulated exhalations. Overlapping dialogue is the norm in prison. It becomes difficult to keep track of the conversations most of the time. The images are all we have to contend with. And they’re full of naked torsos and tattooed backs and arms flailing and bawling and muscling their way through space. This ostensible wordlessness elevates and becomes the key to reaching at the heart of this film. But you’ll have to dig your way through flesh, blood and bone before managing a grab at it. And Sauvaire won’t stop at anything from getting your hands dirty.
Until he does. For once Billy decides to kick his heroin habit once and for all, the film begins flirting with the comfort of the normative. It begins checking all the items on the prison film checklist one by one. Soon, the hitherto immersive descends into yawn-inducing redemption. We start waiting for outstanding moments to briefly jolt the film into life. The urgency and sheer terror of the gangrape scene, which features in the cleverer, bolder part of the film, is never matched by the moments that come in the laggard later parts. The now comatose film shows a few signs of life, especially when the real Billy Moore shows up in the role of our protagonist’s father, briefly melding documentary and fiction. But by then the film has transformed into the severely normative and everything risks lapsing into the realm of the gimmick.
Joe Cole is the unrivalled star of the film. It is by all means an awe inspiring physical performance. We feel his rage. We are pushed into corners with him; can hear the clock ticking inside his head while he plans his next move. He carries the film with a grace birthed from an unusual melding of the pathetic, earnest and the sinuous. His gumption simmers forth from the boiling pan of fear, belief and helplessness. We hear his muscles move, see his pain and smell his redemption around the corner.
A Prayer Before Dawn stops an inch or two short of true greatness. For a considerable duration, it remains an enriching, borderline unique film experience. Courageous and feral. Even with all the flaws that slowly begin creeping into it in the later parts, it is a film that will stay with you long after you’ve finished viewing it.
(Yes, dear reader. That clichéd last sentence has been inserted there on purpose.)
A Prayer Before Dawn is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here:
Updated Date: Nov 07, 2018 10:39 AM