Exactly 40 years ago, Alan Parker’s Midnight Express added a new dimension to the prison movie. The doors were opened on the hellish jails in other countries, Turkey in the case of Parker’s film, and it was also based on true events. Fast forward to now and this week sees the arrival of a similar story, but this time in a Thai prison. Midnight Express was shocking in its day. A Prayer Before Dawn will shock you to your core.
This is no easy watch, but it’s brutally brilliant in following the misfortunes of boxer Billy Moore, living in Thailand and put in prison for drug offences. The one thing he knows how to do is fight – he’s the proverbial angry young man – but prison is a living nightmare. He speaks no Thai and, with his pale skin and lack of tattoos, he’s an easy target for the inmates and guards alike. He manages to find his feet, earns a place on the prison’s boxing team and respect follows, as well as a certain amount of acceptance from the other inmates. But when he takes to the ring to box on behalf of his prison, he’s literally fighting for his life.
And the combination of boxing and prison life makes for a gruelling, harsh experience, one that makes you wince and squirm in your seat. While the Thai people have a reputation for compassion and kindness, this shows us a different side. The fiery, beat-first-and-ask-questions-later police and prison guards, the prisoners themselves, covered in tattoos Yakuza style, the beatings, the rapes, the appalling conditions. Nothing is left to the imagination and there are moments that can only be watched through your fingers. But this is searingly honest film making, not sensationalism. Billy’s fight on behalf of his prison is almost unbearable to watch, not just because it’s vicious – all his fights are – but because of the circumstances.
Everything is seen through his eyes and perspective. So when the Thai people speak, it’s in their language and we’re not treated to any sub-titles. We’re in the same position as Billy, listening to the incomprehensible and trying to hazard a guess as to what’s being said. It’s all part of being an outsider. The noise in the prison, especially when the inmates argue, is deafening and almost incessant. It’s impossible to get any peace – yes, even when everybody is sleeping, because they all lie on the floor almost like sardines and anything can happen. You can almost smell the sweat in the sticky humidity – their skins shine with it – and the entire re-creation of the prison reeks of authenticity.
It should do. With one exception, all the Thai people on screen are non-actors and many of those playing prisoners have been in jail themselves, so were able to advise on the various practices and rituals behind bars. It’s no wonder it feels so horrifically real. As Billy, Joe Cole, is simply sensational. No other word for it. Hardly ever off the screen, and working with the minimum of dialogue, he gives an incredibly physical performance, one that demands huge amounts of ability and commitment from him as an actor. He more than delivers. He also manages to change your attitude towards him: initially, he’s not especially sympathetic but, as his stay in prison continues and he manages to keep going, he gains your respect and in the latter stages of the film you find yourself willing him on, wanting him to survive and find a way out. He’s not aiming to escape – he has a chance and doesn’t take it – nor does he have anybody with money behind him who can help, so all he can do is survive the best way he knows how. By fighting.
A Prayer Before Dawn is hard work, but in the best possible way, telling a true story with an unflinching honesty and compassion. It shows a dark, brutal world, never attempts to disguise it and gives us just a tiny glimmer of hope at the end.
Freda Cooper | [rating=4]
Action, Biography, Crime, Thriller | 18 | UK, 20 July (2018) | Altitude Releasing | Dir. Jean Stephane Sauvair| Joe Cole, Vithaya Pansringarm, Billy Moore.