Deep Focus: A Prayer Before Dawn
Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s self-destructive adaptation of Billy Moore’s 2014 memoir about his evolution from Liverpool hooligan to Narcotics Anonymous advocate zeroes in on his two years in horrific Thai prisons—roughly 60 percent of the book—and his training in Muay Thai boxing, which uses fists, elbows, knees, feet, and shins. Watching this feral no-exit film is like running a gantlet on roller skates, with blinders. “Subjective camera” usually means turning the lens into the eye of the protagonist, so that we see exactly what he or she sees and thus share the experience. In A Prayer Before Dawn, Sauvaire (Johnny Mad Dog), filming in an actual Thai prison with a cast of real criminals and convicts, attempts to get a similar effect by closing in on the fictional Moore’s face and torso as he thrashes out his anger at kingpins, jailers, and hapless fellow prisoners who crowd him at the water queue. The intense yet limiting technique undercuts the film’s dramatic truth. Overloaded with physical peril and over-strategized to convey the jitters of a strung-out junkie, the movie runs a deficit on emotional intelligence and journalistic information.
The film’s kinetic impact can be shattering. Threats spring from every corner of the prison cells, where scores of inmates line the walls and form human alleys in the middle of the floors. They sleep cheek to jowl on mats or blankets, except for the wise few who, like Moore, lie on their backs with arms folded and elbows out, protecting their spaces. The first night Moore spends in lockup, he rests between a “ladyboy” (Thai slang for transsexual) and a dead man in a room filled with 70 other sweaty bodies. When he’s assigned to another packed cell filled with fearsome tattooed drug dealers, one blade-wielding thug surprises Moore at the group urinal at night and pushes him to the ground. He forces Moore to witness an atrocity that unrolls just to the right of his head: the gang rape of a fellow prison newbie.
Sauvaire stages and shoots this act of violence in tight images of bodies piling on and around each other as one gangster after another coldly thrusts into the helpless victim. Of course, the director ignores what’s happening in the rest of the prison cell, but at least this one time he presents an abomination with precision. Playing the stunned and appalled Moore, British actor Joe Cole displays his radical engagement with the material. It’s his performance, rather than Sauvaire’s clammy, claustrophobic method, that connects the action to the audience. When Moore is left alone at the scene of the crime, and Cole’s face fills the frame, his expressions reflect our own revulsion. Our antihero’s trauma becomes palpable.
Cole was memorable as John Shelby, the hotheaded brother in Steven Knight’s BBC series Peaky Blinders, and forgettable as a terrorized punk rocker in Jeremy Saulnier’s The Green Room (2015). In A Prayer Before Dawn he proves that he has movie star potential. “Great movie actors have features that are ruthlessly efficient,” Robert Towne once wrote. “Efficiency that’s been touched with a bit of lightning, perhaps.” Such actors “can illuminate a moment with shock and scorching clarity. And virtually no dialogue.” That’s exactly what Cole does in his best moments here.
Cole’s ability to convey adrenaline overload and panicky calculation clarify the frenzied opening scenes. As a bare-knuckled bruiser in back-alley fights, Moore gorges on heroin or yaba (a notorious Thai mixture of caffeine and methamphetamine) so he can battle his opponents like an animal, though we see that brute force doesn’t win. Then we glimpse his small-time drug trade at a strip club, where we also get a taste of his hazy debauchery. Shortly before the police break down Moore’s door, Cole hides a stash of yaba pills up his rectum. Too bad Moore doesn’t have time to dispose of his weapons or hot cell phones, which lead to his three-year sentence. (Moore says, in his book, that he didn’t steal the phones himself but bought them from “a couple of Burmese junkies.”) Without Cole’s visceral commitment, this movie’s version of Moore would lack any emotional traction—a potential disaster, since he’s the sole substantial character. Even with his gung-ho performance, the film is still a punch-drunk mess. Sauvaire’s style, blocking off our peripheral vision while leaping from one supposed high point to another, precludes nuance and essential lucidity.
In life, Moore, an amateur boxer turned bandit and drug criminal in his Liverpool youth, spent 15 years in and out of British jails by age 32. He went to Thailand for a fresh start when he was clean and used the discipline of Muay Thai boxing as an existential anchor. In his memoir he views himself as a seeker of “security, protection and love” and says that heroin served as his “refuge, a warm happy place to curl up in where no one could get to me.” As Moore tells it, after going straight and even working as a stunt man and an extra on location for Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo (2008), romantic rejection catapulted him back to heroin in Thailand. The book’s prison sections emphasize the friendships he sustained with men of many nationalities—for tactical and purely personal reasons—within the walls of Chiang May and, later, Lard Yao, part of the notorious Klong Prem Central Prison. In his second year of imprisonment, Moore converted to Islam partly to enjoy the civilized fellowship (and healthy food) of a Muslim prison librarian. But ultimately he realized that “jails, psychiatry, religion and medicine were not [the] answer, it was the fellowship of Narcotics Anonymous that had saved my life and those of countless others. I just needed to get home.”
The movie dispenses with the backstory and simplifies everything else. Moore becomes the only foreigner we see, so Sauvaire can double down on startling isolation effects. (In this film, whenever a Thai stranger uses English, it registers as a threat.) At the same time, Sauvaire’s pattern of paring down Moore’s relationships and conflicts often makes the action inscrutable. When Moore leaves one cell for another, an anonymous fellow prisoner hugs him goodbye, and we wonder when these two became buddies. In the book Moore sinks his teeth into a fellow prisoner’s neck while trying to protect two old men from an attack. In the film he does it to a prison officer who refuses to provide him with the pain-killing drug Tramadol. Moore would have to be at his most addled and despairing to be this stupid; in the book the worst he does is slug a trusty and threaten a prisoner with a hatchet. Predictably for a contemporary movie, Moore’s only non-pugilist friend turns out to be a pretty ladyboy named Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang), who runs a prison canteen. After she fronts him enough cigarettes for him to bribe his way into training with the boxer, their relationship briefly turns romantic. This contradicts the real Moore’s primal confession that “the biggest fear I had was falling in love” with a ladyboy.
Only after Moore scraps his way onto the team and moves into the boxers’ quarters does he experience any true Big House male bonding, including the sanctioned homoeroticism of his mates greasing down his body or patting and hovering over him as he gets his first tattoo. His teammates speak frankly about their extreme crimes. One admits that he went on a homicidal rampage after learning that the rap he took for a girlfriend earned him five years of hard time; another confesses that he racked up two kills as a hit man. Moore, too, will find meaning and discipline in boxing and comfort in the privileges he gains.
The movie, unlike the book, takes on a conventional boxing-film structure, building to a climactic bout (followed by a 12-minute denouement). Unfortunately, Sauvaire’s tunnel vision couldn’t be more wrong for boxing, whether it follows the Queensberry or Muay Thai rules. The director’s grueling close-ups and emphasis on a single fighter (Moore) clash with the concept of a boxing match. I like a good fight film, but only one moment lifted me out of my seat: when Moore executes an elbow smash that he’d just mastered in training.
This kind of film is too often called “bold” and “unflinching.” It’s true that in and out of the ring, Sauvaire’s camera registers every blow that lands on Moore’s head, limbs, back, and gut. His moviemaking aims to be “in your face,” but it rarely penetrates to your heart and mind.
Michael Sragow is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Deep Focus column. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and a contributor to the Criterion Collection.