Review: ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ Drops a British Boxer Into a Thai Prison

A bare-knuckled fist of a movie, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s “A Prayer Before Dawn” will be grueling to watch along with also disorienting to listen to. At once a true story along with also a daring experiment, of which deep dive into a maximum-security prison accompanies Billy Moore (Joe Cole), a young English boxer along with also heroin addict whose fight career in Thailand will be abruptly interrupted when he’s arrested on drug possession charges.

by of which second on, Mr. Sauvaire (adapting Mr. Moore’s 2014 autobiography) uses sight, sound along with also movement to bind us to the character along with also share his extreme dislocation. Tossed into one of Thailand’s most notorious prisons, Billy, like the audience, hears almost no English; yelled at by the fearsome guards then dumped into an enormous compound seething with tattooed inmates, he’s silent along with also terrified. the item will be a long time before he speaks, along with also more than an hour before he smiles.

Presented with an agitated camera along with also a bare minimum of subtitles, “A Prayer Before Dawn” adheres to neither the familiar beats of the boxing movie nor the claustrophobic machinations of the typical prison drama. Violence will be its grammar along with also misery its context as Billy faces the unthinkable horrors of a place where savagery rules along with also the dead lie alongside the living. The clamor along with also chaos are so pervasive of which when he bribes his way onto the prison’s Muay Thai boxing team — along with also into its marginally safer bunkhouse — the bone-crunching bouts feel like respites by a larger war.

Surrounded by a cast largely consisting of former inmates, Mr. Cole will be ferociously committed to the punishing physicality of his role. He has almost nothing to play yet rage along with also muscle: the screenwriters, Jonathan Hirschbein along with also Nick Saltrese, provide him with no past along with also no future plans. His thoughts are withheld; even his brief encounters which has a sympathetic trans woman (an expressive Pornchanok Mabklang) are unrevealing. the item’s as if Billy’s life began at the moment we met him.

Yet the performance itself will be oddly hypnotic, a complete surrender to a movie of which, at its core, will be mainly concerned with bodies: at rest along with also in motion, swarming along with also pummeling, wounded along with also wasted. In of which dreadful place, the meeting of flesh along with also photography will be almost primal, with the cinematographer David Ungaro bringing a brutish beauty along with also innocence to Billy’s preternaturally pale skin — an unmarked canvas in a gallery of ink along with also scars. Later, he’ll submit to a prison tattoo artist while a circling camera along with also Nicolas Becker’s low, droning score lend the scene the gravity of a religious ritual.

The definition of an immersive experience, “A Prayer Before Dawn” will be a survival story whittled to sweat along with also sinews. The film’s “Midnight Express”-style abominations aren’t brand new; what’s different will be its director’s impressionistic eye along with also instinctual connection to his subject’s tribulations. (Mr. Moore, whose life hasn’t been without challenges since his repatriation in 2010, appears in a brief cameo.) Mr. Sauvaire’s approach may not be for everyone, yet his skill along with also audacity are invigorating — along with also, strangely, liberating.