Like many young English men visiting Thailand, Billy Moore (Joe Cole) spends much of his time taking drugs, getting into fights and shagging ladyboys. Unlike most of them, Billy Moore does it inside one of Thailand’s most notorious jails.

A violent petty thug and drug dealer who plies his trade in the clubs of Bangkok and gets high on his own supply, Billy is busted on drugs and weapons charges and soon finds himself incarcerated in the overcrowded Hell on Earth of the infamous Bang Kwang Central Prison.

Unable to speak the language, friendless and alone, Billy witnesses all manner of horrors; rape, murder and suicide are commonplace and, caught between the corrupt guards and his brutal fellow convicts, he finds solace in the arms of trans woman Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang) and temporary escape in the drugs supplied by corrupt officer Preecha (Only God Forgives’ Vithaya Pansringarm).

With every day a relentless battle for survival, Billy seeks redemption in the only thing he knows – fighting – joining the prison’s boxing team and channelling his violence and frustration into training and competing in Muay Thai boxing tournaments. But as the hope of freedom glimmers, Billy’s greatest opponents are his own demons…

A gruelling, visceral assault on the senses, A Prayer Before Dawn is an intense, bruising experience that throbs at the base of your spine. Based on the prison memoirs of drug addict turned champion prize fighter Billy Moore, Johnny Mad Dog director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s film is punishing and disorienting, casting the audience adrift with its young star.

And make no mistake, Joe Cole is a star, delivering a raw, uncompromising performance that takes no prisoners, his swaggering bravado just barely masking his terror, his panic. Far from sympathetic, it’s an intense, physical turn that, like Sauvaire’s film is lean, mean and pared to the bone.

Rattling through the expected clichés of both the prison genre and the sports movie, the boxing itself feels almost incidental to Sauvaire’s narrative, the film immersing us in the bleakness, the violence and the chaos of Billy Moore’s world before offering us the hope of his redemption.

Muscular and ferocious, A Prayer Before Dawn is a savagely cathartic release.

DVD Review: A Prayer Before Dawn
4.0Overall Score
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