'A Prayer Before Dawn': Film Review | Cannes 2017

'Midnight Express' meets 'Ong-Bak,' and that's a good thing.

British actor Joe Cole ('Peaky Blinders,' 'Green Room') stars as a heroin addict locked up in a festering Thai prison, where he discovers redemption through boxing.

Lying just on the cusp between stylized art house exoticism and pulpy genre thrill ride, Thai-prison-set boxing movie A Prayer Before Dawn is exactly the sort of film one would expect in a midnight slot at a festival. Lo and behold, that’s exactly where it’s premiering, as a special screening in the official selection at Cannes. French director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s third feature (his second was the made-for-TV Punk) shares a lot of aesthetic and thematic DNA with his previous work, especially his dazzling, disturbing study of African child soldiers Johnny Mad Dog from 2008. Like JohnnyPrayer dwells with almost swooning rapture on the bodies of young men as they mete out brutal violence on one another, and features a cast composed mostly of unknowns, impressively coached in order to deliver arresting turns onscreen.

The one big difference is that the lead role here is taken by a trained professional, the swiftly ascending Brit Joe Cole. Best known for British TV’s Peaky Blinders and supporting turns in indie thriller Green Room and Secret in Their Eyes, Cole delivers a performance full of fight, filth and fury as druggie turned Thai boxer Billy Moore, who wrote the memoir on which this is based. Prayer’s prayers have been answered with good sales to territories worldwide, but it’s most natural habitat will be subscription and pay-per-view outlets where it will suit nights in, accompanied by lashings of beer and hot Thai curry.

The early reels plunge right into the ring with scenes showing heroin addict Moore (Cole) bare-knuckling it in seedy Bangkok gyms against local opponents in order to make enough to fund his next tinfoil full of smack. But for reasons that are never very clearly explained — much of the Thai dialogue goes unsubtitled, reflecting Billy’s inability to know what they’re saying — he is arrested and sent to prison. The script, credited to Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese, admirably resists any temptation to fill in his backstory with tales of childhood abuse or tragedy, and it’s only much later that we learn that he’s not even the orphan he claims to be. (The role of Billy’s father is played by the real Billy Moore.)

Instead, Sauvaire and his collaborators have opted to tell Moore’s story in subjective, ever-present tense thanks to copious use of handheld cameras that get very close to the action, so much so that viewers may flinch as they see the punches and kicks come their way. With so little dialogue, Billy’s story becomes a kind of wordless series of ordeals told through the images of sweating, filthy men beating the crap out of each other — and pausing occasionally to do assorted other terrible things to one another (a gang rape is particularly harrowing).

At first, Billy’s main survival strategy is to intimidate his copiously tattooed cell mates — with whom he lives in horrifically cramped quarters, lying literally shoulder to shoulder at lights out — by shouting a lot and lashing out as much as he can. Alternatively, he takes beatings when he has to from the others, and dives into the heroin he buys from a crooked guard (Vithaya Pansringarm, the warden in Only God Forgives) whenever he can. A romance with "lady-boy" inmate Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang), sensually shot by DP David Unga, provides some tender respite from the relentless daily routine of brutality — until it turns out fickle Fame is cheating on him with another guy.  

Ultimately, only when Billy devotes himself fully to perfecting his sporting prowess as a boxer and gives up drugs after several relapses does his life start to improve. It’s a classic boxing-movie trajectory, but Sauvaire gets extra brownie points for the austere way he tells this oft-told story. Cole’s searing intensity and total commitment to the physical demands of the role is integral to the film’s effectiveness. One ought to single out some of the Thai actors, nearly all of whom, according to the press notes, are former convicts themselves, but the lack of names used in the subtitles makes it impossible in retrospect to identify who is whom. Let’s just say that if he wants to take this career further, the guy with facial tattoos who plays the cell boss that makes Moore’s life especially hellish in the first half of the film could have a very promising future as a heavy. Lord knows, he looks the part.

Special mention should also be extended to the various crafts people responsible for the sound mixing and design, who work hand in glove with composer Nicholas Barker to create a lush soundscape of composed and recorded noise, all spooky gongs and long-sustained shimmering chords, both beautiful and ominous. Who would have thought that the sound of fists and feet pummeling flesh could have such rich tonal variety?

Production companies: A Meridian Entertainment, Symbolic Exchange presentation of a Senorita Films Production in association with Indochina Productions, Hanway Films with the participation of Canal Plus, Cine Plus
Cast: Joe Cole, Billy Moore, Vithaya Pansringarm, Pornchanok Mabklang, Panya Yimmumphai, Somluck Kamsing, Chaloemporn Sawatsuk
Director: Jean-Stephane Sauvaire
Screenwriter: Jonathan Hirschbein, Nick Saltrese, based on the memoir ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ by Billy Moore
Producers: Rita Dagher, Nicholas Simon, Roy Boulter, Sol Papadopoulos
Executive producers: James Schamus, Jennifer Dong, Woody Mu, Peter Watson
Director of photography: David Ungaro
Production designer: Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat
Costume designer: Lupt Utama
Editor: Marc Boucrot
Music: Nicholas Becker
Stunt coordinator/Fight choreographer: David Ismalone
No rating, 117 minutes