Review: A24's 'A Prayer Before Dawn,' Starring An Excellent Joe Cole, Is Brutal, Bloody, And Unrelenting

A24 release "A Prayer Before Dawn" is not a particularly enjoyable film, but it has a central performance from Joe Cole that is intense and unsettling. This isn't an easy film to watch, but Cole has to shoulder the entire thing, and he does it well. in a role that was originally given to Charlie Hunnam, Cole adds a mixture of tension and vulnerability that will make you feel deeply for a character who seems caught in a series of impossible decisions.

An adaptation of the memoir "A Prayer Before Dawn: My Nightmare in Thailand's Prisons" by Billy Moore, the film tells Billy's story: A young British boxer living and training in Thailand, Billy is arrested for heroin possession and sentenced to time in a Thai prison, a place that is profoundly corrupt and unbelievably violent. One of Billy's first lines is "I don't fucking understand," and the movie uses that confusion as its jumping-off point, especially when the action moves into the Thai prison where Billy will be held. The place is, to put it succinctly, a nightmare, not only because Billy barely speaks any Thai but because the people held here are mostly hardened criminals, killers, people who enjoy toying with Billy as someone new and someone different from them.

There's a scene where the men -- overwhelmingly tattooed, incredibly intimidating, and all with that look of "Oh yeah, this guy could fuck anyone up" -- in Billy's new dormitory all surround him, asking whether he's gay, poking at his body, pushing him around. The undercurrent of potential violence is always there, which comes to fruition nearly immediately when (only 20 minutes into the movie), some of the men force him to watch them gang-rape another young inmate. The next morning, the inmate has killed himself, and the implication -- which continues throughout most of the film -- is that Billy is not one of them, they can do whatever they want with him, and he's never going to be safe.

"A Prayer Before Dawn" spends its run time finding increasingly harrowing ways to drive this point home. Dormitories are littered with people who just lay down and die, and space is so tight that bodies are nearly stacked on top of each other; the person you go to sleep next to may never wake up. Heroin is available in the prison, sold by guards and other inmates, but the price is high, and if you don't pay up, you're in trouble (one of the film's most shocking moments is when a group of inmates hold Billy down as another inmate, holding a syringe of his own blood to Billy's skin, threatens him with AIDS if he doesn't settle his bill). Billy's family doesn't know where he is, and a flirtation with a transgender inmate named Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang) seems like a chance at real human connection -- but could they really be together? And although the prison has a boxing team, would they let Billy join -- or is his attempt at recreating the outside reality of his life thwarted in that way, too?

Director Jean-St├ęphane Sauvaire, who assembled a cast with real-life inmates and shot part of the film in an actual Thai prison, does a good job capitalizing on the overwhelming tension of this place, and Cole's performance is like a frayed nerve -- once you realize the circumstances of how the film was created, his reactions seem even more intense. Fight scenes are extremely rapidly edited, and it seems as if milliseconds of action are missing, like you're going in and out of consciousness during the fight. It's an impactful effect, and Sauvaire provides screentime to other elements of Muay Thai training, too -- the ritual of being rubbed down with Thai linament, the exhaustive repetition of practicing leg kicks, the unrelenting pace of a competitive fight.

"A Prayer Before Dawn" deals with so much ugliness that it's almost impossible to watch at times, but Cole's performance is worth seeing, and the movie does provide a glimpse into a world that will seem unimaginable for some viewers. This is a brutal, bloody film that offers no apologies, but its impact is undeniable.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5