Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s “A Prayer Before Dawn” feels like a Scorsese film, possibly the biggest compliment I can give it, like “Raging Bull” married “Silence.” It’s a film discussing the hardships of a Thailand prison system, as well as the dourness of addiction. It’s a tale filled with vigor and depicted with ferocity, never shying away from showing the worst of things in exchange for a feeling of despair. It’s honest in that way, but unlike Scorsese, Sauvaire is unable to manage the film from a micro level as much as he can from a macro level.
Treated as a biopic about Billy Moore (Joe Cole), a young boxer whose addiction to heroin drives him to a life of anguish in which he finds himself within the bars of a Thailand prison. It’s not pretty; his first day is spent puking up his guts, experiencing withdrawal. He soon finds himself in a few fights, then locked inside a dog cage sized hole as punishment for his behavior. Soon he’s placed in a cage with fellow inmates. There is a cage boss whose in charge of the cell and everyone who resides inside of it.
That same night he experiences a sequence of scarring events in which a fellow inmate is raped, forced to watch with a shank push against his throat, he lies awake after with an expressionless face, waking up to the suicide scene of the same boy who hung himself in the middle of the night. Stripped of his manhood, he had nothing left. That was day one.
Jonathan Hirschbein & Nick Saltrese’s screenplay, based off of Billy Moore’s memoir "A Prayer Before Dawn: A Nightmare in Thailand,” doesn’t let up either. Moore (Joe Cole) finds himself battling his addiction, doing cruel things, beating relatively innocent men to near death with his bare hands, even attempting suicide at one point.
It’s not a story for the faint of heart. It's brutally authentic. It builds that harsh environment around a broken man of a character, someone whose seemingly alone in this world, lost to a habit that he cannot escape. Like Scorsese, the film builds it's character through events, never giving us a one on one moment with this man, instead, making him through moments of action. It’s something Scorsese excels in doing, while Jean-Stephane Sauvaire stumbles with it.
He fabricates a character that is built off of everything going on around him and to him, never showcasing what he wants, who he is, or why he has fallen to this hellish place. It makes it hard to invest at times. LIke standing in front of a painting that you enjoy, that you understand, yet you find yourself blocked from being able to experience it in the way the artist intended.
Something else that plays a factor in making the film feel that way is the character of Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang), a ladyboy that Moore (Joe Cole) finds an affinity for, providing a romantic aspect to the story. While most likely legitimate, this inclusion of a love story feels forced. It’s like the annoying person at a party, randomly spouting off every once in a while, changing the tone of the atmosphere entirely.
These micro-level aspects are where “A Prayer Before Dawn” runs out of gas in the midst of the twelve round battle, but where it lands knockout punches is with Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s direction and David Ungaro’s cinematography. It’s vividly intoxicating. The boxing scenes are craggy and ragged, like a barroom brawl. Maintaining close proximity to the fight, transitioning between a tracking shot and splicing quick cuts here and there to fabricate a relentless amount of intensity that makes these boxing scenes become on par with Coogler’s fight in “Creed.”
It’s truly mesmerizing, but there is also the fervor and fury added to the scenery of the prison. It’s grungy, dirty, rusty, and continuously impressionable. Providing imagery that will be seared into my brain as some of the best images of the year thus far, with both it's camera movement and stylistic design, Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s direction, and David Ungaro’s cinematography nearly steal the show, but you can’t overlook Joe Cole.
Looking magnificent, Cole portrays Moore with this emotionless expression at times. Seemingly lost in space, as if the events he’s witnessing take a while to sit in, but when he explodes with anger from the withdrawal, it's ferocious. Simply stunning to watch, Cole provides a powerhouse performance that anchors the film. He’s the necessary gear in this machine of a movie, delivering the horsepower to push this film past its storytelling lags.
The ensemble of Thailand actors is remarkable as well, with only one actor being your standard white man protagonist, the rest ranging from heavily tattooed men portraying prisoners, a few ladyboys, and a furthering amount of diversity to be found. The treatment of language is fascinating as well, Jean-Stephane Sauvaire doesn’t treat the dialogue as a translation, more of a need for essential information, providing subtitles when we need to know what they're saying, never at any other time.
You could argue that Jonathan Hirschbein & Nick Saltrese do the same with the screenwriting, but the page is different than the canvas. I needed that dose of scent, that nibble of a bite; I needed something to sink my teeth into. It felt more like I was snacking throughout the entirety of the film, waiting for the main course.
Luckily, the entirety of the film fabricates an experience that is dreary, produced through masterful filmmaking. You may find yourself standing on a double-sided mirror, unable to feel the experience that Jean-Stephane Sauvaire desires you to endure, but you won’t be able to look away.