‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ SXSW Review: Thai prison as a way to enlightenment

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When we first meet Billy Moore (Joe Cole) in Bangkok, he’s taking a dive in a kickboxing match in order to earn heroin money. When he’s eventually busted by the police, right before they swarm his apartment with guns drawn, he crams what remains of his stash in his anal cavity in order to have some sort of comfort where he knows he’s going: Thai prison, or, as it is better known, hell on Earth. Moore’s story of his time in lock-up was the subject of his best-selling memoir, A Prayer Before Dawn, and it has been adapted for the screen by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, who is dedicated to preserving the reality of his grimy experience for all to see.

It is a wonder of a film, a redemption song without its protagonist actually being redeemed, a sparse and sad document of prison life that doesn’t feel out of step with other films in its genre (Midnight Express, for one), and an anti-cathartic horror show designed to frustrate the casual viewer and complicate its messaging. As such, it is perhaps the most thematically and texturally realistic prison film made in recent years, captured on location at real Thai prisons (full of the grit and grime within) with an ensemble that, aside from Cole, is comprised of non-actors, and Sauvaire, long a “doc-style” filmmaker, is able to bring poetry to this chaos.

Moore spends his first few months in prison navigating the normal difficulties of prison life: Where to get cigarettes (from the “ladyboys” at the canteen, bought with money your family sends you) and heroin (from the corrupt guard or your cellie), how to get water when you’re surrounded by hundreds of other screaming people, how not to get murdered when you stumble upon an assault in process in the middle of the night in your cell block. Unlike prison in the States, though, he’s crammed in a single room with forty-something people and forced to sleep on the floor next to them, which means its nearly impossible to stay out of the fray and mind your own business, especially when you’re a gangly and out-of-place Englishman surrounded by Thailand’s most intense criminals.

These early moments serve to show the intensity of the prison environment, a cacophonous mass of humanity shoved together behind bars — and the rules and cruelties of everyday life within — you’re bound to be stuffed in a tiny cell for weeks on end if you act out, your only contact with your family and friends comes through plexiglass across a chasm, and god help you if you’re caught with heroin on your person: Your beating will be broadcast over the public address system for all to hear and fear. The camera hovers over Cole’s shoulders, tracking him as he moves from room to room, keeping him as close as possible, only enhancing the claustrophobia. Most of the Thai-language dialogue isn’t subtitled, so we’re kept with Moore in the dark, and the subtitles begin to come in once he starts to understand the language. It all adds up to something off-putting and uneasy, and it keeps you on your toes.

After struggling through those initial months, Moore discovers that the prison has a boxing team, who travel from prison to prison competing against other inmates. Sure, they’re afforded significantly more privileges than the average prisoner — more food and space, a special training area — but Moore sees it as a way to get back to his roots and reconnect with himself free from the scourge of his addiction. It’s on the team that he finds some sort of acceptance and respect from his fellow prisoners and, in perhaps the film’s most poetic moment (aside from Moore’s relationship with a trans inmate, who is a source of quiet comfort for him even though they’re not fleshed out much), he gets a stick-and-poke tattoo of a tiger from a teammate, surrounded by the rest of them. Filmed in hushed tones under soft lighting, with Sauvaire’s camera gliding across the slick bodies of the men involved, we linger on their own tattoos and the incredible details hidden within their framework, and we see Moore truly become a part of th team.

It’s then that he begins to fight for the team, though he’s quickly let down by his own intestines, which rupture soon after his first competition fight. The boxing scenes are shot in such a way that you can never quite tell what’s going on, but I had a respect for that more so than I do for something like a Paul Greengrass film even though they’re working to similar ends. It takes the thrill out of watching a match and puts us in Moore’s shoes, as he’s getting hit from all sides and struggling to make his combinations land. The ending speaks to this approach as well, where the internal changes in Moore’s character are demonstrated with a zen-like calm: A personal evolution instead of redemption or physical triumph.

Cole is the perfect actor for a project like this, and he does some fearless fucking work throughout the two hour runtime. While many will suggest that his on-camera sparring with professional boxers might be his greatest feat here — and admittedly, those are punches few would be willing to take even for prize-fight money — it’s his ability to capture the fear and bewilderment of being trapped in a situation like that, from the existential fear at the heart of the prison experience to the more basic fears of having a knife held an inch from your eye as you watch a cellie get assaulted by multiple men in the prison bathroom, or a when gang member withdraws a blood-filled hypodermic needle from his forearm and threatens to infect him with AIDS. He is over his head and totally out of his element, but he’s slowly able to find some sort of equilibrium inside, and Cole sells that as well.

The entire film rests on his shoulders, and he’s able to carry the burden. I don’t think that A Prayer Before Dawn will be for everyone, even amongst those who consider themselves inoculated to genre, and there will be those who find it exploitative and awful, plain and simple. But it is a brilliantly upsetting course charted through one man’s experience in the worst prisons on Earth and his enlightenment within, and I highly recommend it if you have the stomach for it.

‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ hits theaters later on in 2018. Follow Nick Johnston on his adventures at SXSW 2018 @onlysaysficus. Featured photo courtesy of A24.