Competition is stiff for the title of cinema’s most violently harrowing prison drama, and tougher still for the all-time most pummeling boxing movie. Gutsily, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s “A Prayer Before Dawn” comes out fighting for both, landing a number of clear knockouts in the process. At once exhausting and astonishing, this no-holds-barred adaptation of British junkie-turned-pugilist Billy Moore’s Thai prison memoir is a big, bleeding feat of extreme cinema, given elevating human dimension by rising star Joe Cole’s ferociously physical lead performance. For French director Sauvaire, it’s a return to the hungry, technically dazzling form of his unshakeable 2008 child-soldier study “Johnny Mad Dog,” as well as a testament to his suitability for an international range of hard-genre projects.
A24 has already scooped the U.S. rights to “A Prayer Before Dawn,” appropriately premiered at Cannes as a midnight screening — the right slot for a film that mixes down-and-dirty fight-night thrills with a kind of heightened sensory experimentalism, hypnotically fixated with bodies and motion. (It’s certainly not every film that calls to mind, by turns, such disparate reference points as “Midnight Express,” “Only God Forgives” and Jean-Claude Van Damme in “Kickboxer.”) Global distributors would be wise to play up the cult potential of this arresting one-off, though their “Prayer” will be heard only by viewers with nerves (and stomachs) of steel.
An international bestseller in 2014, Moore’s “A Prayer Before Dawn: A Nightmare in Thailand” is the kind of redemptive misery memoir that could easily have invited more lurid or mawkish mainstream film treatment. Moore (who appears briefly on screen as his own father) should be glad his book landed in the hands of Sauvaire. A filmmaker with a visceral understanding of bodily strain and its effect on the psyche, he’s been in need of material to serve it, after 2012’s made-for-TV adolescent drama “Punk” failed to build on “Johnny Mad Dog’s” exhilarating promise. Here, screenwriters Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese (a veteran of British soaps and TV procedurals), have stripped Moore’s story down to its bare, battered bones, affording the director (and cinematographer David Ungaro) maximum room for sensualist corporeal examination.
The sordid details of Moore’s backstory — including a lengthy history of heroin addiction and 15 years spent in different prisons — are wisely kept to a minimum here, while the precise drug-related circumstances that landed him a three-year spell in Thailand’s notorious Bang Kwang Central Prison (famously nicknamed the “Bangkok Hilton” by foreigners) are only vaguely explained. Sauvaire elects to keep viewers as dazed and disoriented in the present tense as his meth-addled protagonist, going so far as to keep the film’s Thai dialogue unsubtitled at several key points of panic. Words, after all, are not this film’s weapon of choice. Nor are they of much use to Moore when he finds himself the lone non-native in a filthy mass cell, where inmates sleep on the floor in sardine-tin formation, and a simple trip to the urinal tends to come with an unprovoked beating and a knife to the throat. Gang rape, too, is a routine occurrence, making for one of the film’s most explicit sequences of throat-clutching horror.
Fleeting relief comes via the inconstant sexual attentions of ladyboy inmate Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang, in a salty, striking turn), as well as the smack he procures on the sly from a guard. But it’s when he’s permitted to take up Muay Thai boxing that he finds a satisfying outlet for his pent-up fury. Having scraped by as a bare-knuckle fighter in Bangkok prior to his arrest, the buff, ox-shouldered Moore rises fast through the prison fighting circuit — barely a less gruesome way to get turned into human burger meat than the unregimented gang violence running rife in the corridors, but ultimately a more constructive one.
It’s in these fight sequences that the brute beauty of “A Prayer Before Dawn” is concentrated. Realized by Sauvaire and Ungaro as a veritable ballet of flailing limbs, torn skin and faces almost orgasmically contorted by pain, they deploy the itchy edits and claustrophobic hand-held camera moves familiar from umpteen previous boxing pics — yet in pursuit of aesthetic grace rather than grit. In some frames, the heaving plethora of bodies (most of them vastly and intricately tattooed, making Moore look even paler and more vulnerably alien by comparison) merge into a sort of collective tapestry of skin, bruised and abused in an infinite variety of ways. This unnerving dream state is enhanced by the film’s extraordinary soundscape, one that inextricably tangles the indigenous influences in Nicolas Becker’s low, eerie score with the surreally amplified crunch and squelch of displaced flesh and bone.
Special mention must go to fight choreographer David Ismalone, who gets queasily authentic results from the ensemble — not least Cole, whose stony physical endurance is only the most superficially impressive aspect of a performance that must at times convey a lot of psychic pain beneath still, stoic waters, before letting it all roar out of him. An auspicious presence in TV’s “Peaky Blinders,” as well as smaller roles in films like “Green Room” and “The Falling,” the Londoner announces himself here as a leading man of sturdy conviction and considerable daring — though it’s hard to imagine what future vehicles will put him through the wringer quite like this one.