A Prayer Before Dawn (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): A brutal prison drama to strike you hard

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“A Prayer Before Dawn”, which is currently available on Netflix, is a brutal prison drama packed with grim but striking moments you cannot easily forget. This is surely a tough stuff, but the movie is compelling and electrifying thanks to its considerable realism and verisimilitude, and it is also firmly anchored by its strong lead performance which is definitely one of the notable breakthrough performances of this year.

During its first act, the movie depicts how a British lad named Billy Moore (Joe Cole) comes to be tumbled to the bottom of his problematic life. In Thailand, Billy has tried to reach for success via Muay Thai boxing, but he is miserably defeated in a big match, and that further accelerates his methamphetamine addiction, which in turn pushes him into crime. As briskly moving from one moment to another after the opening match sequence, the movie succinctly presents its hero’s rapid descent into crime and addiction, and we are not so surprised at all when he is eventually arrested by the Thai police on one day.

Not long after his arrest, Billy is sent a big prison whose seedy and harsh condition is not so far from “Midnight Express” (1978). He has to share a big cell along with a bunch of prisoners, and he finds himself sleeping right next to a dead man during his first night in the prison. As a foreign prisoner, he has many disadvantages besides language barrier, and there is not anyone to help him inside or outside the prison.

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And this is just the beginning of his predicament. After committing a serious act of violence, Billy is promptly transferred to a section for hardcore criminals. Many of prisoners in this section look quite menacing with numerous tattoos covering their bodies, and they harass and intimidate Billy and other few new inmates for showing, well, who the boss is in the section. Not long after that, he happens to witness a group of inmates rape one of the new inmates, and that gut-chilling moment is surely more than enough to remind him that he is thrown into a far worse circumstance.

As becoming more frustrated and desperate, Billy lets himself fall further into his drug addiction. As he craves more and more for methamphetamine, he becomes quite willing to do anything for getting the drug, and there eventually comes the moment when he hits another bottom. As demanded by a prison guard who occasionally supplies him methamphetamine, he savagely beats two inmates, and that is the point when he comes to face what he has become due to drug addiction.

Fortunately for him, the prison has a Muay Thai boxing team, so he decides to join the team. Although he is initially rejected, he eventually joins the team thanks to his persistence and a little help from a generous transgender inmate, and he soon comes to be recognized by the team coach and other team members as diligently throwing himself into training.

Of course, there come several expected problems and obstacles later in the story, but the screenplay by Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese, which is based on a real-life story as shown at the end of the movie, deftly handles these and other elements in the story with considerable efficiency. During one particular scene involved with a private letter sent to Billy, the movie does not show or tell us the content of the letter at all, but all we need to know is clearly conveyed to us as the camera calmly looks at Billy from the distance. While Billy’s close relationship with his transgender friend leads to a rather predictable moment of conflict, the movie finds a neat way to resolve their conflict without making a fuss, and that is one of a few milder moments in the film.

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In case of a number of Muay Thai boxing scenes in the movie, they are quite gritty and thrilling as demanded, and director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire did a commendable job of charging these scenes with lots of energy and excitement as required. Fluidly moving around in the ring, cinematographer David Ungaro’s handheld camera closely and vividly captures every physical movement, and the dexterous editing by Marc Boucrot makes it sure that we can feel every impactful shot while seldom getting confused.

As the center of the movie, Joe Cole, a young British actor who previously played a supporting character in “Green Room” (2015), gives a dynamic performance as memorable as Jack O’Connell in “Starred Up” (2013), which is incidentally another gritty and violent prison drama revolving around a troubled young hero. While looking believable in the Muay Thai boxing scenes, Cole ably conveys to us his character’s constant struggle with personal demons, and we come to care about his character to some degrees. In case of other performers in the film, many of them are real ex-inmates who have served time in Thai prisons, and they certainly contribute a lot to the realistic atmosphere of the movie.

Although it is often difficult to watch for good reasons, “A Prayer Before Dawn” is a competent genre piece to be admired by its mood, storytelling, and performance, so I recommend it with some caution. Prison drama is not exactly my favorite genre, but this is a fairly well-made one with some distinctive aspects, and you may appreciate it as much as me.

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