Claustrophobic biopic bolstered by a knockout performance from Joe Cole.
The trailers for A24’s A Prayer Before Dawn would lead you to believe it is a violent, albeit fairly standard boxing biopic that takes place in Thailand. But the film is far, far different, on a different plane of existence from classics like Rocky and Warrior. Directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, this traumatic true story, based on the memoirs of Billy Moore is a feat of extreme cinema that indulges in arthouse sensibilities a little too much, forgetting aspects of a fighting film which can be entertaining for an audience, while all the same featuring one of the strongest lead performances so far this year. Imagine Midnight Express and Raging Bull had a baby, and you have A Prayer Before Dawn.
Billy Moore (Joe Cole) is a boxer in Thailand, fighting his way through each day, feasting in blood-soaked, frenzied bouts, hard drugs and god knows else what. The day comes when his actions catch up with him, and he is thrown into a Thai prison for an unknown amount of time. There he must sharpen his will and behaviour in order to survive, getting the chance to master the art of Muay Thai, and in return, also earning his freedom.
This is a harrowing biopic of a fallen man. Claustrophobic and intense from the start and continuously till the very end, Sauvaire implements a very distinct visual style, hectic and difficult to follow sometimes. Our opening sequence places Moore in some fight in Bangkok, souped up on drugs and foaming like an animal. It’s an unattractive introduction, purposely so to ease us into this nightmarish tale. You’ll be able to tell from the first sickness-inducing fight scene that the choreography of the bouts or the kinetic value of them isn’t Sauvaire’s focus – it’s all about getting inside the character. For a ‘fighting film’, there’s not an awful lot of fighting. Often any boxing sequence is overlaid with a concussed soundscape (subtly implemented by Nicholas Becker) and shakily filmed camerawork. This allows us to get inside Cole’s damaged psyche, but deprives us of some sweet beat downs we were craving walking in.
There are moments so sobering here they’ll leave you gasping for breath, with one in particular reminiscent of American History X. Tough to watch they may be, but the filmmakers clearly set out with realism in mind here, something which becomes increasingly apparent as you watch. It’s hugely uncomfortable viewing at times, from scenes of attempted suicide, to the uncompromising sight of rape (a disturbing scene which lasts a staggering amount of time). Undoubtedly, there will be walkouts (as was witnessed in my screening of the film). But that’s all about tolerance. The film leads you through Moore’s gruelling journey through muddled, sickeningly dirty jail cells, crammed to the brim with prisoners who are forced to pretty much sleep on top of each other in the blistering heat. The supporting cast do a remarkable job of becoming a relentless screen presence, literally surrounding many scenes and evoking a feeling of breathlessness in the audience. The film doesn’t bow down to the conventions of subtitling the densely Thai scripted running time, dropping us into this world similarly to Moore, only being able to comprehend his situation through interpretation. It’s a brave move that can be frustrating at times, but the end result is far more admirable.
Joe Cole is on terrific form, contributing to the picture with a transformative, terrifyingly committed performance that certifies him as a boldly physical star with immense potential for the future. Best known for his work in Peaky Blinders and Black Mirror, his well-played examination of the raw testosterone and mindlessness that drove Moore is simple magnificent.