Cultural Bulletin
Cultural Bulletin is a quarterly magazine that provides an international view of creative work. We look to film, music, design and art as signifiers of our cultural moment.

In Review: A Prayer Before Dawn

Director: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire


It doesn’t look like fun in Thai prisons. And, whilst retelling the memoirs of boxer Billy Moore, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire certainly doesn’t scrimp on depicting them as sheer hell on earth. Welcome to a hot, humid world of tattooed faces, horrifying rapes and a complete sense of disorder and corruption.

The film takes place in Klong Prem prison (also known as the Bangkok Hilton), where Moore had been sentenced to three years for drug offences. His only way to survive the prison and (as it becomes increasingly clear) himself, is to work his way up the in-house Muay Thai boxing ladder.

In his outstanding portrayal of Moore, Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders) awakens memories of Tom Hardy’s performance in Bronson in terms of his physical commitment to the role. Not being a meth addict myself, I can only assume that the level of frustration and need for a ‘hit’ can illogically result in punching the living daylights out of someone regardless of the number of menacing tattoos on their fod. And so he does. Where he really shines, however, is the way he displays the violence and vulnerability tormenting Moore internally. It’s there on his face as he attempts to preserve his ever-building status.  

You don’t need to check IMDb to realise the other actors are a pack of incredibly intimidating real-life prisoners. Only Vithaya Pansringarm (who also starred in the similarly dialogue-free Only God Forgives) can be picked out of the mob as a recognisable face. This, along with the intended lack of English subtitles at moments of tension, makes for a potent and immersive experience.

To create a relentlessly claustrophobic environment, Sauvaire uses frequent handheld close-ups for most of the prison scenes. This also transfers into the bruising fights themselves. Thankfully there are no cringe-worthy flashbacks mid-fight or Billy getting his pummelled ass back up at the last second to heroically knock down his opponent. In fact, since the film’s release, Cole has spoken about how this was indeed deliberate. In refraining from spoon-feeding the audience with a back story, we are given a tough, brutal boxing film without the vice-like grip of Hollywood cheese.  SB