‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ Is a Prison Drama That’s As Beaten As It Is Brutish

How appropriate it is that Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s next directorial project – according to IMDb, at least – bears the title Addicted to Violence. When something becomes your purpose, it’s likely to become your drug; a drug whose effects show their true colors when that purpose is stripped from you. For former Liverpudlian boxer William Moore, as depicted in Sauvaire’s adaptation of his memoir “A Prayer Before Dawn: My Nightmare In Thailand’s Prisons,” fighting may as well have been his drug – or, at least one of them. Part of his gripping, and ultimately awe-inspiring tale of survival includes his struggles with addiction, particularly to a hybrid drug called ya ba, a chemical cocktail of methamphetamine and caffeine, and the film version’s narrative devotes a sizable portion of its time harrowingly depicting Moore’s dependence and the dehumanizing lengths he goes to satisfying it. But remember; he’s also a boxer.

I issue that reminder not because the film itself makes any powerful declarative statements through action and theme that addicts are more than their addictions (which they are, let’s be clear), or that the film’s narrative so heavily emphasizes his being an addict over his being a boxer, undoubtedly its dramatic core, but rather because the film’s structure so awkwardly separates the two so as to repeatedly bludgeon us viewers before it lifts us up. There’s no arguing Moore’s experiences in the infamous Thai prison Klong Prem, nicknamed the ‘Bangkok Hilton,’ weren’t for the faint of heart given his living conditions, and thus the film’s aesthetic follows suit, but its narrative is a splitting into two halves that, in a few ways, is nearly as uncomfortable as witnessing the events put to celluloid.

Only so rarely can content effectively transcend convention instead of vice versa. Before it can reach Moore’s tale of redemption, the meaty center – its purpose, if you will – depicting his training and fighting in Muay Thai boxing while imprisoned, A Prayer Before Dawn’s first 45 to 55 minutes are spent aimlessly wandering from one scene of human depravity and drug abuse to another, escalating and inevitably peaking around the midpoint when it tells us implicitly that Billy, here played by Joe Cole, has almost completely fallen from grace. It’s an opening near hour that, aside from competent direction from Sauvaire and a fully committed Cole, is missing an explicit or underlying thematic drive that offers engagement as its content, particularly some graphic scenes of assault and gang rape, horrifies.

This half’s seemingly being a mere cog in the disappointing practice of storytelling convention without the added benefit of character depth and development, as well, additionally isn’t so flattering in hindsight. With such a repetitious model only made not quite as exhausting thanks to some admirably uncompromising direction, A Prayer Before Dawn feels empty and devoid of clear purpose, and once the narrative shifts toward his prison boxing exploits and the tone becomes less uniform, it still can’t seem to divine a reason for existing beyond the usual redemption arc, sports drama and even prison movie storytelling tropes laid out in a more matter-of-fact, documentary-like style than most. There’s nothing for us to attach ourselves to emotionally, aside from the expected and fulfilled hope that Billy will better himself and regain pleasure in his purpose; not one meaningful ounce of backstory to latch onto and empathize with.

In essence, the film doesn’t really possess any characters, including Billy, who so constantly lives on the edge of compassion, fear and blinding rage leading to animalistic violence from scene to scene that it seems Sauvaire’s intent for pure naturalism also sought to forsake involvement rather than include it. There exist only multitudes of tattooed man meat propped up against decrepit circumstances of moral decay with no discernible reason for being beyond a commendable rejection of artistic license and the potential one-dimensional statement that humans are no more than civilized beasts. In a shorter film, such might have felt passable, but with two hours of time to kill and nothing substantial to show for it aside from the visceral reactions provoked by certain sequences admittedly well-crafted, it’s understandable if some come out of this feeling as exhausted and beaten as Billy.

For all intents and purposes, A Prayer Before Dawn is Kathryn Bigelow-lite; getting up close and personal to the ugliness while remaining detached enough not to metaphorically get your hands dirty. Though the prospect of a film version of Moore’s memoir focusing less on characters and more on circumstance and primal violence seems like a fine idea, but again, there has to be something emotionally or thematically significant supporting it, much like Bigelow had with 2009’s The Hurt Locker. I imagine some won’t mind this, however, and to be fair, there is enough of the necessary, visceral grit on Sauvaire’s part as well as David Ungaro’s quite physical shooting style – in addition to the muscular editing that follows – to capture a somewhat redeeming sense of character – the on-location shooting and wide use of non-professional actors, many of whom were former prisoners, also go a long way in confirming authenticity.

Worse decisions have been made with biopics before. Certainly, worse than a mere flirtation with and lack of resolution for the intriguing idea of a setting, particularly prison, where raging masculinity is made futile and redundant by the collective presence of multiple individuals expressing the same personality all at once. And in case you weren’t already paying attention, keep your eyes open for Joe Cole in his future endeavors – anyone who can effectively impose themselves physically in the frame while successfully mimicking a Scouse accent deserves high praise. Through his emotionally and physically taxing performance, it’s clear he identified the purpose behind Moore’s story, but there wasn’t enough support underneath him to justify bringing such an – excuse me – arresting story to life, at least in this form.

Undoubtedly, Sauvaire aimed for a particular stylistic target and struck it with unflinching aplomb, though if there was anything else on his mind, he – or perhaps screenwriters Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese – didn’t do the best possible job in communicating it. The very fact, however, that it isn’t as grueling an experience as it perhaps should have been outside of content is a subtle testament to his craft, though the implicit applause behind such praise isn’t exactly rapturous. Instead, it’s spoken with reservation, condemned to a purgatorial middle ground where temptation to make concessions on behalf of the filmmakers can run rampant, until another part of you advises otherwise.

2.5/5

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