In “A Prayer Before Dawn,” director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire and screenwriters Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese (adapting the memoir by Billy Moore) effectively eschew narrative convention to tell this harrowing story of a meth-addicted Brit scraping by in Bangkok as an underground boxer who’s arrested on robbery and drug charges and thrown into a nightmarish prison. Although gruesome and grueling, it’s an immersive, deeply powerful and darkly inspiring tale.
Moore (an extraordinary Joe Cole), the lone white boy in a sea of ferocious, massively tattooed native criminals (played by non-professional Thai actors), must adapt or risk death amid constant cruelty, violence and intimidation.
That Moore is eventually able to compete in Muay Thai boxing on behalf of the prison offers a more productive outlet for his troubling volatility. He also connects with transgender inmate Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang), which leads to one of the movie’s rare tender moments.
Skillfully shot and edited, with terrific sound design (especially in the kinetic boxing scenes) and an intriguingly selective use of subtitling, the film evokes a kind of surreal docudrama as it piles on the drug-and-fight-fueled Billy’s physical and emotional torture. It’s a haunting and masterful effort, but be warned: This is tough stuff.
‘A Prayer Before Dawn’
In English and Thai with English subtitles
Rated: R, for strong violence including a brutal rape sequence, drug use and language throughout, some sexual content and nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood; also on DirecTV