31 Days of Film: A Prayer Before Dawn
It would be a stretch to call A Prayer Before Dawn a fun time. A24’s most recent independent film is more proof that the production company is willing to give talented directors the space to create interesting and at times subversive films. This year alone the studio released Mid90s, Hereditary, Eighth Grade, First Reformed, and Slice which was a miss but a fascinating miss at that. A Prayer Before Dawn is a worthy addition to the studio’s filmography. It will be a tough watch for many but there was no other film quite like A Prayer Before Dawn released this year, or maybe ever. As with so many of A24’s more ambitious films though it was difficult—or impossible depending on where you lived—to see this film in theaters. I watched it on Amazon but wish I had gotten the chance to see it in theater. Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire takes great pains to give the audience the experience of Billy Moore and at times that far from a fun experience so removing the escape of the pause button or your phone is an important element to the experience of A Prayer Before Dawn.
Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s first film was Johnny Mad Dog, a film about African child soldiers. Which also took a cast of unknown performers to give an unflinching story of the most base and cruelest parts of the world. Ten years later, Sauvaire follows it up with his second feature length film, A Prayer Before Dawn, a British and Thai biopic isn’t really concerned with fun or the comfort of its audience. He’s barely concerned with narrative clarity. But for an extremely personal tale of a drug addict in a foreign country thrust into maybe to worst place on Earth, a Thai prison, the disorientation is key, and beautifully executed. The first scene of the film throws the audience head first into the ring with Billy Moore, played by Joe Cole, in a brutal up-close match that is more violence than sport. The whole opening of the fil moves at break neck speed, it takes under 9 minutes of runtime before Moore is in prison, and in those 9 minutes there is barely a line of dialogue. Sauvaire gives the viewer little to grasp on to which can be challenging at parts of the film. With only sporadic dialogue and much of it in Thai with no accompanying subtitles Sauvaire puts you in Moore’s shoes who is an Englishman who seems to speak little, if any Thai. Aside from the opening sequence and one scene in a prison, the entirety of the film takes place in the prison. The audience accompanies Moore as he suffers the horrifying indignities of life in a Thai prison: sleeping almost on top of one another in cells that are run like criminal outfits, corrupt prison guards, and rampant drugs and brutal violence.
The film’s success is dependent on Joe Cole’s performance and he delivers exceptionally. Moore’s fiery temper and struggles with addiction come through beautifully on screen. I always thought Cole was a good performer while in Peaky Blinders but I would be lying if I said I thought he had this kind of performance in him. Moore’s depth and complexity of character is all that more difficult to convey in the film when he is given so little dialogue. But Cole excels in his moments of reaction. So much of the story is told as Moore is an observer to the chaos around him at the prison. A particularly harrowing scene is when Moore, on his first knight in the cell, is forced, knife to his throat, to watch his cellmates take turns raping a fellow new prisoner. And in the morning when it has been revealed the prisoner has hung himself over the night, the callousness and detachment with which the prisoners react epitomizes the normalcy of violence and the detachment with which Moore—still heavily using heroin—experiences the world around him.
A Prayer Before Dawn is a film that I am unlikely to revisit in a hurry, but the brutality and honesty of its story contains beauty in violence and depravity of its setting. Joe Cole’s outstanding performance and Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s signature hyper-realistic directing style produce a film that is at times challenging to watch but beautifully made and ultimately a rewarding journey. A Prayer Before Dawn is one of the year’s best and its a real shame that this incredibly personal and harrowing film flew under the radar.