Life in a Thai prison is hellish in A Prayer Before Dawn. Recounting the real life experiences of Billy Moore, a young man is sent to prison for drugs charges and must endure the brutal beatings and berating from the guards and his fellow prisoners. He is also frequently robbed and humiliated. To make things worse he is still addicted to the heroin he used on the outside and will do anything it takes to score a hit.
The only way to escape the harsh realities of life in prison is to become a Muay Thai champion. So he starts training and slowly begins to save himself. This part of the concept may sound a bit JCVD or Sly Stallone, but this is far more Starred Up than Lock Up. The fight scenes are not filmed to be visually attractive but rather viscerally upsetting. The focus is on the devastating impact of the violence on both participants. Often the impact of a punch is not shown. The arm is swung and there is the horrible wet crunch of bone on meat. There’s no relief to be found in Billy taking up arms against his sea of troubles, nor will he by opposing end them. Every punch just pulls him deeper into the filth.
The grim reality of the film is overbearing to the point of feeling cynical. Moments of relief from Moore’s suffering are consequently sublime, though seldom. He falls in love with a ladyboy named Fame whilst in prison. Their scenes together offer much needed peace amongst the catalogue of horrors. Similarly, once Billy successfully enters the Muay Thai team he finds himself part of a genuine fraternity. There are some lovely scenes of the men bonding over the correct way to kick someone repeatedly in the ribs, but Billy’s drug habit soon causes tension.
The film feels incredibly personal and is clearly about someone coming to terms with a horrifying period of his life. It’s hard to see how someone who has suffered these miseries could recuperate and live to help others. There is then something extraordinary at the heart of the film. It’s hard to recommend A Prayer Before Dawn as it is so relentlessly bleak. But it is undeniably effective in evoking the horrors of Thai prison life. This is a brutal but memorable prison drama.
3 / 5
Paul Salt is the co-host of One Good Thing.