Based on the memoir by Billy Moore, A Prayer Before Dawn is the true story of a heroin addict incarcerated in a Thai prison, who battles his demons in the Muay Thai boxing ring to earn his freedom.

A Prayer Before Dawn should come with a warning; not for those with a fear of enclosed spaces, needles, blood or a faint heart. Directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, and adapted for the screen by Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Salters, it is based on the memoir by Billy Moore, ‘A Prayer Before Dawn: A Nightmare in Thailand‘ and tells the story of a young man who travelled to Thailand to escape from an addictive lifestyle, only to relapse after being introduced to yaba, a potent methamphetamine. After making a living boxing and dealing drugs, Moore was eventually captured by the authorities and imprisoned in the notorious Klong Prem prison. 

Originally intended to be portrayed by Charlie Hunnam, it is a blessing that he was replaced by Joe Cole, who we last saw in Black Mirror, and who delivers a staggering performance as the troubled young Billy. Whilst inside, he is forced to watch as fellow cell mates are brutally gang raped by heavily tattooed, drug dealing members of his cell who trade cigarettes for favours and place bets on fish fights for entertainment. Audience members with a weaker heart will find themselves recoiling in abject horror during the scene, delivered with brutal realism.

A Prayer Before Dawn Joe Cole

Joe Cole delivers a breakthrough performance as Billy Moore in A Prayer Before Dawn. Photo: A24

Following his inculcation into the inescapable way of life inside claustrophobic walls of the prison, Moore finds himself faced with death and murder on a daily basis. He is driven to attempt suicide by slitting his own wrists with a spare bit of metal, only to find some solace in his relationship with a ‘ladyboy’ called Fame, from whom he obtains the cigarettes he needs to bribe his way onto the boxing team. Although the perks, if you can call them perks, of being on the prestigious Muay Thai boxing team encourage Moore towards embracing a purpose, his demons clutch desperately as his shoulder, leaving him open to frequent bouts of violent outrage in which he spits, and positively froths at the mouth: ‘You want to go next…who wants some?’

There’s no lack of stomach churning moments in Sauvaire’s blood and sweat-drenched reflection on the soullessness of life behind bars. In one overwhelmingly nauseating moment, one of the inmates threatens to inject Moore with his own blood, infecting him with AIDS, if he doesn’t win his fight and earn the money to pay back his disgruntled cell mates. 

Billy Moore A Prayer Before Dawn

A Prayer Before Dawn is based on the memoir of Billy Moore, who was transferred to Wandsworth prison in 2010. Photo: A24

Shot with a cast including real prison inmates, A Prayer Before Dawn is unflinching in its no-holds-barred presentation of the purposelessness of life in Klong Prem, and the mind of a drug addict trapped inside it. In a mostly foreign-language film, Cole’s performance is heightened by his ability to speak without the aid of words, and for a baby-faced thirty year old from Kingston-upon-Thames, he delivers a remarkable impression of a deeply troubled, desperate drug addict with a frightening and unrelenting temper.

The only criticism to make of A Prayer Before Dawn is that at just under two hours, it feels slightly drawn out. It’s almost half way through the film before Billy rediscovers his love of boxing in the prison, and there’s still a good deal of training to go before the final fight. When it does come, the victory is somewhat subdued, there is no rousing homecoming or prison-wide celebration, depriving the film of the desperate need for an uplifting ending. At times, the quick-capture, up-close shots of blood-spattered mouths and bruised bodies used as punching bags feel repetitive and disorientating, which was perhaps the intention.

Closure finally arrives in the form of Billy’s father, hitherto absent, arriving at the prison to greet his son. Unbeknown to the audience until the closing credits, this is the real Billy Moore, identifiable through his mutilated ear that we see being butchered earlier in the film. If Moore’s story is unknown to you upon entering the cinema, the last few minutes of the film provides a heartrending sense of completeness to what has been a traumatic story to watch, let alone experience. An unrelenting, visceral ballbuster of a film, A Prayer Before Dawn delivers a blow to the gut that will leave you quivering in your seat.

★★★★☆

A Prayer Before Dawn will be released in the United Kingdom on July 20, 2018.