SXSW 2018: A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN Holds You Captive

Relentless physicality explored by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire

The 2018 edition of the SXSW Conference and Festivals is here, and the Cinapse team is on the ground, covering all things film.

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My most anticipated film heading into South By Southwest 2018, A Prayer Before Dawn featured quite a few elements that spoke directly to me. As a fan of Peaky Blinders and Green Room, star Joe Cole is very much on my radar as an up and coming talent. Add in the plot of a fighter trying to survive in a Thai prison, then take note of the “A24” factor, and I couldn’t have been more excited.

What I got was a harrowing experience unlike anything I may have expected. Rocky this is not.

Entirely told through the perspective of Cole’s Billy Moore (whose real life experiences were written in an autobiography of the same title), the audience is unceremoniously dumped into a Thai prison with Billy and never given a moment of orientation or hand holding. Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese’s screenplay is extremely sparing when it comes to dialog, even choosing to not subtitle the vast majority of the lines spoken in Thai. This tactic succeeds in forcing the audience to rely on visual and physical cues to gain their orientation. It also places us more directly inside of Billy’s head as he must navigate this cut throat environment without the help of shared language. Not helping Billy’s chances of survival is his crippling drug addiction, which is portrayed on screen with no judgment or scruples.

The great strength of A Prayer Before Dawn is its relentless physicality and lurking camera which never shies away from any of the filth of the prison. Joe Cole is not only the only white person in the film for 98% of the time, but also one of only a couple of trained actors. Shot in a real Thai prison and populated with former prisoners as cast, there’s authenticity to spare here. These men are huddled together in dire conditions usually wearing nothing but shorts and flip flops. They’re covered in sweat and tattoos. Drug use,prison rape, and gang activity are rampant. All of this is portrayed with a shocking immediacy both in the style of the cinematography and in the denial of English dialog. We’re forced to see and feel this film, smell the sweat, and want for nothing more than to be freed from the hellish experience.

Billy’s only salvation is to fight. This is Thailand, after all, and the martial art of Muay Thai borders on religion there. The only shot Billy has at escaping the violence of the prison gangs and conquering his drug addiction is to fight on the prison’s team of boxers. It’ll be a fight to the very end, all we can do is go through the grueling experience of detox and training and fighting right alongside our hero.

The demons of A Prayer Before Dawn are far more grimy and foreign than the underdog challenges that make us cheer for Rocky as the ultimate underdog story. We aren’t hoping for some kind of righteous moral or symbolic victory for Billy Moore. We’re praying that he makes it out alive. Pure survival is the only victory available here. Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire has crafted a pointed vision here that must have been pure misery to shoot. Joe Cole easily carries this film on his shoulders and turns in a ferocious performance reminiscent of something like Tom Hardy’s early turn in Bronson… half naked, half crazy, and occasionally covered in shit. It’s an effective and powerfully physical film. It’s also not for the faint of heart, and probably won’t be an experience that I’ll want to put myself through again, either. Any fans of this type of violent, dark drama exploring the depths of depravity and desperation will find something effective here, and it comes recommended.

And I’m Out.

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