9. A Prayer Before Dawn
I’ll be blunt about this one. A Prayer Before Dawn is a hard movie to watch. It tells the true story of Billy Moore, a British boxer who makes his way to Thailand to try and make a living. He soon falls into drug addiction and is sent to a prison in Thailand where he falls prey to more drug use, gang violence and inhumane living conditions.
I wasn’t familiar with the story of Billy Moore so when A24, the studio that distributed the film, released the first trailer I was excited for a grueling Muay Thai boxing movie. What I got instead was grueling yes, but it didn’t focus so much on the boxing. A Prayer Before Dawn’s main concern is drug addiction. The film is based off a memoir written by Billy Moore and it dives deep into his struggle with substance abuse in a way most films would shy away from in fear of being too real or too intense.
One of the most striking aspects of this movie is the pacing. There’s almost no narrative which might make it a hard sell for some, but I found it mesmerizing. There’s no opening title card explaining Billy’s life before Thailand, no flashbacks to his childhood detailing his fathers’ abusive tendencies. There’s really no context at all. It simply opens with Billy in Thailand moments before being arrested and flings the viewer into the nightmare of Thailand’s prison system. It’s slow and purposeful, with each shot conveying levels of desperation and pain that other movies dare not attempt. When it does ramp up to one of Billy’s fights or some other moment of violence it lands so effectively due to the slow burn the viewer has just sat through. If there is an arc to this film, it’s that Billy is offered a chance at redemption in the form of boxing for the prison (as a diehard fan of martial arts movies I will say that these boxing scenes are incredible). This is where I think the film succeeds the most. Billy is given a clear chance to escape his addiction and possibly earn his freedom by representing the prison and boxing for them, an opportunity that he chases ferociously. I think a weaker movie would’ve made this an easy out for Billy and we would’ve spent the remainder of the movie following his life after prison as he reformed. But A Prayer Before Dawn isn’t an easy movie with easy answers. We see Billy continuously fuel his drug addiction for the remainder. It’s punishing to watch, but also rewarding by the time the credits roll.
The movie was shot on scene at an actual Thai prison and most of the cast members are ex inmates from Thai prisons which makes it one of the most immersive prison films I’ve ever seen. There’s a real sense of danger in “A Prayer Before Dawn” because it’s so steeped in reality. Billy is the only white prisoner and you can feel the tension of that brewing throughout the entire film as he is surrounded and constantly threatened by the heavily tattooed inmates around him. Billy is spending every moment struggling with his addiction which is at the forefront of the movie, but he’s also under constant threat from the inmates and guards who are at war with one another.
The part of Billy Moore is played by English actor Joe Cole. Cole inhabits this role so well and gives easily the most ferocious performance of the year. You can feel his rage and desperation in every scene. He spent months training for the boxing scenes which are all brutal and extreme, but what’s even more impressive are the outbursts of emotion from Cole.
It’s not for the faint of heart, but A Prayer Before Dawn was one of the most arresting movies I’ve seen all year. This year saw several films made about drug addiction like “Ben is Back” and “Beautiful Boy”, but “A Prayer Before Dawn” puts them all to shame with its unrelenting rhythm and furious lead performance by Joe Cole.