A Prayer Before Dawn (2018)
Written by Jonathan Hirschbein & Nick Saltrese
Directed by Jean-Stephane Sauvaire
Billy Moore is an Irish expatriate who finds himself Muay Thai boxing tournaments on the streets of Bangkok. He’s also using and dealing yaba (a mixture of meth and caffeine). Eventually, the law catches up to Billy, and he’s sent to prison where his difficulties multiply. He witnesses the brutal rape and subsequent suicide of a fellow inmate. He’s forced to try and go unnoticed by the violent gang in his cell block. What makes all of this worse is he has no one on the outside to provide him with money so he can have resources to use inside. Two things become his guiding lights: a ladyboy named Fame, a fellow prisoner who works in the commissary and the group of inmates training for Muay Thai tournaments within a prison circuit. Moore may never escape this nightmare, but he is going to battle his way to survive.
A brilliant decision was made in the adaptation of this real-life story which was to withhold Billy Moore’s backstory. There are no flashbacks to Ireland or long expository soliloquies. We begin right as Billy goes into a fight and have to piece together through the images that follow who is and what is happening in his life. Despite much of the dialogue being in Thai, we provided few subtitles unless necessary. In that way we’re in the shoes of the protagonist, trying to decipher the commands being barked at him and feeling confused in a place that is dangerous and unfamiliar. The film does an excellent job of showing us Billy’s progression in communicating, listening intently as his fellow inmates/boxers tell their personal stories and he is confirming that he understands out loud. The supporting cast is composed mostly of real-life former Thai inmates which add both to the reality of the violence but also the depth of humanity.
In the same way, Billy grows as a communicator; we see his boxing technique becoming refined. When we watch his first match, he’s frenetic, infused with yaba, and chaotically beating away at his opponent. The coach inside the prison emphasizes the techniques and the muscle memory needed to become a good fighter. Billy strains to adapt at first and then a moment comes in the middle of the fight where you see it all click, and he becomes something more than he started as.
Director Sauvaire doesn’t shy away from showing us the brutal nature of life in prison. Moments of violence are filmed naturalistically, no sense of exploitation but neither holding back from what is happening in front of us. Yet, he also uses that naturalism to highlight the beauty and sensuality of rare moments. Billy’s trysts with Fame are also not exploited but showcase the intimacy and tenderness these people are sharing in the midst of darkness. Boxing also becomes a display of intimacy, the ring a place where a small group of prisoners can unleash their anger at their situation while bonding closer as a family. When they finally decide to initiate Billy with his first tattoo, they circle him, holding his hand, his shoulders. When the tattoo is finished, the artist offers a quiet prayer over this new brother. Billy finds the family he is missing within the walls of hell.
A Prayer Before Dawn plunges you into this particular place and this very specific experience, positioning the camera just over Billy’s shoulder for large portions of the film. We walk with him into the waiting maw of the prisoner, and we follow just a few steps behind as he moves toward the ring for a fight that will define him for the rest of his life. Billy Moore is a troubled man, and the movie doesn’t choose to end at the moment where he triumphs. Instead, our denouement has him transferred to a new prison but after he actively makes a choice not to escape. He knows he can’t connect with the world outside those walls anymore. It was the world around him in Ireland that pushed him to run, and when he ran to somewhere else, he only fell into a darker hole using drugs. He is free, in an odd way, inside a prison where he can devote himself like a monk to developing control of himself through boxing.