Intimacy. That’s the surprising sentiment that rung in my head after seeing ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’, an immersive prison drama based on a true story which charts a man’s tortured path to redemption. It is expertly told in the way it projects relations between characters that soothe and revile; comfort and violate.
Our director, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, sentences us to some 100 minutes in a grimy overcrowded Thai prison to keep his hero, the junkie boxer Billy Moore (Joe Cole), company. For Sauvaire, it is critical that Billy isn’t a surrogate. Merely eliciting empathy is low hanging fruit. Sauvaire wants to engage our senses. He wants the same despair flowing through our veins.
The plot itself toes the line of your average redemption tale. ‘Bronson’ with a happy ending, I thought to myself as the narrative unraveled. The brash Billy is actually a terrible fighter, sorely lacking in discipline. His pull towards violence is only trumped by the hold heroine has over him. You could argue they provide similar highs for him. He is the literally the ugly duckling of the prison by virtue of his race and he chips at his own eroding dignity with the lengths he would go to for a quick fix.
That this third prison is meant to be a corrupt and horrid place isn’t as important as the effect it has on Billy, who is such a brilliantly realised character. There really isn’t much of a difference between the first few minutes we spend with him in freedom before he is incarcerated. Being behind bars only makes it clear to him that he has been a prisoner to his self-destructive desires all this while. He finally realizes his existence is a crumbling tunnel and finally starts looking for the light.
It’s no surprise Sauvaire has a background in documentary filmmaking given the quasi-verite approach to his visualization of this remarkable story. He allows every visceral moment to breathe, very heavy on the senses and light on dialogue. The single-take Muay Thai boxing brawls are eye-catching in the way it emphasizes the more primal bone-crunching aspects of aggression at the as opposed to something with more finesse and grace.
The first 30 minutes of ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ has some of the best directing work of the year. I go back to the word intimacy. It’s all about the way Sauvaire engages our sense of touch. The first scene of the film sees Billy receive a massage from this skinny Thai kid; one of his few friends. The scene is brilliant in the way it emphasizes the boy’s hands at work; massaging Billy’s neck, meticulously oiling up his chest, carefully adorning his face with the ointment like he was being anointed by a pastor.
This sense of touch becomes more invasive and insidious when Billy is thrown in jail; to a lesser extent in scenes were inmates are feeling out the latest entrant to the prison. Ever so often, dark heavily tattooed arms reach out shove or wrap around the pale Billy who is irritated by the violent homoerotic intimation. Then on his second night, there is a jarring rape scene, we, like Billy, are forced to witness. Some inmates have their way with one of the newbies in truly repulsive but transfixing fashion.
The best attributes of ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ are displayed in this sequence. The very physical performances, led by Joe Cole who goes from defiant to defeat to a broken portrait of trauma in minutes. The cinematography adds to the musty texture of the prison and adds a second layer of revulsion. The sight of sweat dripping down glistening backs covered in tattoos won’t be easily forgotten.
And Sauvaire’s directing subtly transitions from brutally unrelenting to compassionate in a blink. After being forced to witness such a horror at knife-point, with feet and a knee in his face creating some form of artificial claustrophobia, Billy lies trembling in on his mat and we notice a hand grasp his shoulder in the corner of the frame, gently offering some much-needed easement to our protagonist.
It is easy to overlook the fact this story is aiming for a happy ending given the strong opening half hour that leaves us sunken. The testing setting is ultimately envisioned as a place of healing for Billy. The tattoo-covered faces begin to exude less and less menace and more kindness than we expect. It’s the scripts effective way of telling us that Billy’s demons are within, not without. What we expect to be stumbling blocks will only spur Billy on to the redemption we come to desire for him.
Every now and then the script looks to inject beats that remind us this is not a conventional redemption story in execution. It doesn’t sustain the brilliant intensity of the first act but there are true moments of beauty that keep this a rewarding cinema experience. Consider the scene where Billy gets his first tattoo; the antithesis of the earlier rape scene where instead of violent whispers, predatory grunts and the stench of death we hear soothing whispers, prayers almost. There is no sweat running down the tattoos on the backs Sauvaire carefully surveys. The physical contact is reassuring and fostering.
I struggle to thing a film that does so much with simple shots of hands performing actions. They evoke a juxtaposition that is powerful in the way it marks our hero’s journey; one that is largely spiritual. As the denouement nears, we feel like we spent time in a monastery, not in one of Thailand’s worst prisons.
‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ has more to offer in its almost two-hour running time. It’s also probably 10 minutes too long. There is an ambiguous romance sub-plot that added another layer to the theme of intimacy and nourishment but was probably needless. Of course, there’s boxing too, which he has to get better at. There is also the obligatory hurdle our boxer has to face to emerge victorious, though, like most of the film, this hurdle comes in a form we don’t expect.
Ultimately, ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ is about weakness masked by violence embodied by Billy’s bruised hulking frame. As it so happens, the healing also buried beneath a mound of unpleasantness; behind the eyes of rapists and in the palms of murderers. Getting what we need will be a nasty ordeal but the experience and reward will be well worth it.