movie review

A Prayer Before Dawn Is a Harrowing, Oddly Educational Prison Drama

Photo: A24

Watching (and wincing at) the ferocious Thai-prison drama A Prayer Before Dawn, it occurred to me it might not be such a bad choice for a jailhouse movie night. Hear me out on this because there are many positive lessons for prisoners. Among them:

There are much worse prisons than yours. As I’ve said, the movie is set in Thailand, where Billy Moore (played by Joe Cole) is a working-class Brit doper and sloppy boxer who gets pummeled in the ring and later thrown in prison. The first sections are hard to watch, and not just because the camera swerves all over the place, the dialogue is untranslated Thai, and every frame is a jumble of heavily tattooed bodies, slashing shadows, and barbed wire. The worst part is that everyone lies on the floor next to everyone else, which means at night it’s a big sadomasochistic orgy. One scene is just a mass of grunting bodies raping a little guy in semi-darkness. In the morning, that guy is found dead, having hanged himself, but no one seems too upset.

Drugs make you weak. Even with his size and his muscles, Billy is vulnerable. In part it’s his skin color — cadaverous blue-white with splotches of pink. In part it’s that he’s always lashing out at guards and other prisoners, because he can’t master his emotions. But it’s the heroin that makes him beg — pule, really. When the prison pusher orders him to beat up two Muslims, he reluctantly does and gets carried away. The violence he inflicts on men he doesn’t even know makes him so miserable that he finally kicks. That’s when he decides to start boxing again. Win-win.

Fighting well = self-mastery. Boxing is a metaphor, of course. It’s really a path to wholeness. Although Billy is bigger than everyone he fights, he’s always getting the crap beaten out of him because he’s in chaos. When he’s moved into the boxing wing of the prison, he gets more privileges and starts to bond with other people. Yes, they’re murderers, some of them. But they’re really nice guys compared to the ones he used to live with! What they teach him in the ring — without words, because his Thai and their English are shaky—is to kick and punch with rhythmic precision. Violence is already in prisoners’ blood, and here’s a movie that says it can be a path to Zen serenity.

Unruly anger gets in the way of lives and narrative momentum. Just when Billy is on the path to being a first-class boxer, he smashes a guy in the face, gets thrown into solitary, and loses his big mo’. Frustrating for him, frustrating for the audience. When he gets out he goes up to the guy he hit and says, “Ah’m sorry. Ah fooked up.” Without preaching, the movie makes it clear that one should never fook up in that way.

Sublimate your sexual urges. A Prayer Before Dawn is homoerotic as hell and in good, healthy ways. True, Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang), the model-gorgeous “ladyboy” for whom Billy falls, disappoints him by moving on to someone else. But when Billy becomes a real boxer and readies himself for the big match, the other boxers lather up his prone, white body — each man with his own section — and it’s like a holy ritual.

There’s a movie in your story, maybe. There was certainly one for Billy Moore. He’s a real guy who turned his Thai prison experience into a memoir that is now this film, directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire from a script by Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese. It’s a good one, too. The early parts are on the border between mesmerizing and narcotizing (the music is a trance-inducing New Age wash), but once the audience adjusts to its rhythms, it exerts a powerful fascination. The final crawl says that Billy has turned his life around. He has gotten off drugs and now teaches people how not to end up in a Thai prison.

So there you have it. A Prayer Before Dawn: Fine entertainment. Fine teaching tool.

A Prayer Before Dawn Is a Harrowing Prison Drama