A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN is a film out of the era. It is both a heady art film and a gnarly exploitation film. It would easily fit in the “women in prison” era exploitation films of the mid-1970s, or the violent grime cinema coming out of Italy of the mid-1980s. Released in 2018, it is a film that sits closer to the camp of WTF cinema; a high art exploitation film.

A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN follows Billy Moore (played by the star in the making Joe Cole) a British Pugilist in Thailand who has begun to focus more on heroin than he does fighting. This new infatuation leads Billy to an arrest, placing him inside a harsh and unforgiving Thai prison. After witnessing and being culpable to many atrocious acts of human cruelty, Billy hopes that the prison Muay Thai team will lead to his redemption.

Shot On Location

One of A PRAYER BEFORE DAWNS selling points is that it was filmed in a real, functioning Thai prison. The majority of the Thai roles are played by actual former and current prisoners. Surprisingly, the majority of the non-actors play their roles perfectly, not hinting at the structured nature of the squabbles and fights that occur.

They are covered head to toe in both sweat and intricate tattoos, signally their gang affiliation and prison status. Billy stands like a shimmering ghost, his white, unmarked flesh looking foreign amongst the Thai natives. We can feel the danger that Billy Moore is present for, and the cruelty that lurks around every corner.

A Prayer Before Dawn
Panya Yimmumphai, playing an ex-con in the prison he was formerly incarcerated in.

Lost In Translation

Some of this danger quickly devolves into outright confusion. The majority of the film has no subtitles, with several scenes only featuring Thai. With this, we feel as Billy does; lost in a world that he both doesn’t recognize or understand. This begins to become an issue where entire scenes play out that hold dramatic and story driving value, but we as an audience have to try and piece this all together. It is an exercise that becomes tedious and exhausting. adding in a few choice subtitles would have been a quick remedy.

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This is also not a film that has a linear narrative. Entire scenes play out that are clearly just there to drive home the theme of “prison is hell.” One brutal rape scene plays out for over 5 minutes and becomes an exercise in disgusted patience. This leads to a broken narrative, that is more focused on presenting a theme rather than moving the story along. By the time Billy decides he wants to join the Muay Thai team, we exhausted from all the dire and nihilistic scenes that preceded it.

Too Close For Comfort

This exhaustion is only exasperated by the cinematography. Almost the entirety of A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN is shot in close up. Once again, it is clear that the director is trying to make us feel as Billy does; like a rat in a cage. But, after two hours of this, all you want is a wide establishing shot to breathe. It becomes an endurance test, as the camera keeps itself locked on the pasty white face of Billy, or the sweaty manic face of one of his fellow inmates.

The fighting sequences suffer the most from this cinematography. There is a reason most fighting films, like the ROCKY series, keeps the camera at a distance, with only a few quick shots in tight. Joe Cole, while an amazing actor, is not a fighter. The tighter we keep on these fights, the clearer that is.

The punches are soft and sloppy and don’t leave an impact. Sound design during these scenes want us to believe these fighters are throwing with everything they have, but the actual action doesn’t sell this. What should be a monumental moment in the narrative, where Billy gets some sort of redemption, becomes a sweat-stained lesson in stage fighting.

Have Your Cake, & Eat It, Too

Talking about the directing of the film, Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire clearly wants to have his cake and eat it too. The film is heavy with themes of retribution and a distinct sexual tilt (more on that later). This is a film that follows the somewhat dream logic of an art house film, as we seemingly lilt from scene to scene.

While this allows for a meditation of the penal system, the rest of the film has to play catch up on the narrative, as we rush through story beats to get to the next arthouse scene.

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Nowhere is this more apparent than in the “all is lost” moment in the third act. Billy’s moment of weakness lasts all of 2 minutes of screen time before he is back on his journey to redemption. A full story beat becomes an afterthought, as Sauvaire rushes to get to his next sexually tinged scene.

Sauvaire also wants A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN to be an exploitation film. The film follows the same classic beats of “women in prison” films like THE BIG DOLL HOUSE or CAGED HEAT. It’s also an update to the “surviving a foreign prison” genre, most famously portrayed in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS. There is the rape scene, as well as a scene where AIDS-infected blood becomes a weapon. It is gnarly and nasty, and will probably turn most art-house critics away.

Subtext, Subtext, Subtext

All of this would make it your run of the mill exploitation film. What really puts A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN on a whole new level is the overt homoerotic subtext that runs throughout the entire film.

There are several, and I do mean several, elongated scenes of men rubbing down other men with vaseline. the camera hovers and lingers over hands roughly but caringly rubbing this lube up and down these muscled and tattooed men. The most amount of clothing worn being fight shorts, the least being a thong.

A Prayer Before Dawn
Billy (Joe Cole) heading to the ring.

In one moment that truly put the film on another level, Billy is receiving his first tattoo in prison. The camera slowly revolves around the near dozen men that surround Billy, the camera rolling over their muscles and tattoos like vascular waves. Billy lets out small groans with each needle prick into his back, as they men stay tightly encircled around him. The scene ends with the camera facing Billy, a man pushing into him from behind. Billy shudders and groans with each pinprick, as he tightly holds the hands of two of his teammates.

This is not unlike those “women in prison” films. Those films are notorious for their explicit sexual natures, and for exploiting the women who starred in them. In A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN, the explicitness is less explicit, making it more of a subtext. It is still there, though, and makes for a unique viewing experience.

A Prayer Before Dawn’s Rising Star

All of this weirdness and nasty would all fall apart into a pile pompousness if it wasn’t for Joe Cole. Cole is known to most American audiences for his turn in the cutest episode of BLACK MIRROR, or his rougher role in PEAKY BLINDERS. Here, Cole puts on a master class of enraged intensity here. Similar to his role in GREEN ROOM, Cole is always on the edge of going into a violent fury.

He plays the role pitch perfect, as Billy explodes and attacks anyone who gives him the side eye, furiously mashing his forehead against there’s, begging to fight. It is a frantic and sombering portray of an angry young man, and Cole shows that he is one of the new, exciting faces in film today.

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Art House Exploitation

A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN is a true exploitation film. It relies on a hook to lure audiences in the door (“shot in a real Thai prison!”) and doesn’t disappoint with all the grime and horror that a prison film should bring. It is also director Sauvaire’s meditation on the penal system, and what it makes men do to survive.

It doesn’t work entirely as a narrative, but as a piece of art house exploitation, it works wonders. Don’t go into this film expecting to have a good time; expect a film that’ll make you leave confused, but not able to stop thinking about it.

A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN will find its way to theaters this year from A24.

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