A Prayer Before Dawn takes you inside a Thai prison, letting you rub elbows (plus practically every other body part), while feeling the fear of a new fish, as they try to secure a space on the floor to lay down their blanket and maybe catch some rest during their first incarcerated evening. However, they're certainly going to be sleeping with one eye open, as the men are crammed twenty or more to a cage - hardened cons who've been here for years, looking for a new piece of ass to turn out. During the initial night Billy Moore (Joe Cole) spends in this Nakhon Pathom pit of hell, he's held at knifepoint and made to watch as a clique of criminals take turns savagely raping another cellmate, threatening to gouge Moore's eyes or cut his throat should he look away from the scene for even an instant. It's a blunt warning: welcome to your future, white man. You belong to us now. The next morning, the gang rape victim is found hanging in the cell, these horrors just too much to endure any longer.
Shot on location and using real prisoners as both leads and extras (Only God Forgives' Vithaya Pansringarm the only recognizable Thai professional present), French director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire (Johnny Mad Dog) has constructed a work of hardcore exploitation in A Prayer Before Dawn. For two hours, we're locked in with this true story (adapted from Moore's memoir of the same name), terrified as Sauvaire and cinematographer David Ungaro leer at every grimy detail, surveying the stories each inch of the convicts’ (mostly tattooed) flesh tells. The director knows we're here as tourists along with Moore, a boxer who was busted by local police for drugs and assault, following their raid of his shithole flat in the slums. Now, it appears the Thai government has assigned him his final resting place, as death waits to strike like a cobra at any second; his laughing, maniacal peers in this prison all desiring to take a piece of his white flesh as a souvenir. This is the Thai-set answer to Midnight Express, only without the comfort of John Hurt and other English actors to remind us "it's only a movie."
For many, this voyeuristic approach will be too much, especially as it becomes apparent that A Prayer Before Dawn is almost exclusively going to be about Moore's survival, shying away from any sort of true redemption arc, simply putting us in his shoes as he goes from scared shitless amateur brawler, to well-trained Muay Thai combatant. Every day becomes a droning, repetitive cacophony of flesh on flesh barbarism - air horns, screams, cries, laughter and pounding human bodies creating an inescapable symphony that's just as immersive as the location shooting. Sauvaire's film is an endurance test atrocity exhibition, relentless in its desire to blend fiction with real life menace, while actual inmates like Panya Yimmumphai bring their experiences and POVs to the screen, becoming villains in their own story and gleefully smiling while doing so. A Prayer Before Dawn is the truth they endured, and Sauvaire lets them rub it in our faces, all in the service of grueling genre cinema.
Cole is truly remarkable, using his whole body as a tool of unsharpened expression, as Moore battles with heroin addiction, before molding his form into a ring-ready weapon. We can practically taste every drop of sweat and blood, the fighter at first a wild animal, desperate to prove to any who threaten him that he won't back down, bludgeoning guards and getting tossed into the hole for it. While he's training, Cole explodes with every punch and kick, hammering his fears and habit out simultaneously with each impact, be they against a trainer's punching bag or another human being’s face. When the need to freebase another shot of cheap heroin sets in, we practically shake along with him, sometimes hoping he'll just give in so we don't have to watch him suffer any longer. It's a performance that's almost purely physical – especially given Moore can't verbally interact, thanks to his unfamiliarity with the language/dialect – as we watch Cole react to subtitle-free Thai dialogue exchanges, trying to keep up as we do.
If Sauvaire's movie stumbles ever so slightly, it's while depicting a relationship that develops between Moore and "lady boy" transwoman Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang), which feels somewhat underdeveloped in the grand scheme of this brutal story. The two share a genuine chemistry, but it's never really made clear what they mean to each other beyond momentary loving escapes from this sadistic nightmare (which, in fairness, could be all they mean to each other as well). Also, the director struggles with shooting/editing the fights at times, keeping his camera too close and employing too many cuts, instead of going high and wide with the frame, allowing for visual clarity (he's obviously trying to let the furious violence mirror the chaos of the overall institution). Still, these are small prices to pay for a vision this committed to authenticity. A Prayer Before Dawn is a savagely transgressive work, giving all who buy a ticket a front row seat for life on the inside, and just how cheap it becomes.
A Prayer Before Dawn will continue to screen at SXSW Friday, March 16th, at the Stateside Theatre (10:30 PM).