A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN. I left A Prayer Before Dawn feeling like I'd been beaten to a pulp in a Thai prison, but I mean that as a compliment.
Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire's 2017 drama, written by Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese, and starring Joe Cole, is based on a memoir by Billy Moore, a Liverpudlian boxer and addict who served three years in Bangkok's notorious Klong Prem prison after getting busted for drugs and guns.
Klong Prem is a sweltering hellscape where general population prisoners sleep packed like sardines on the concrete floor. Might makes right here, and the law of the jungle holds sway. Trips to the latrine incite unprovoked assaults of shocking violence and a harrowing gang rape staged for the new inmate's benefit had one moviegoer walking out the night I saw the film.
When Moore's punishing performance in bareknuckle prison brawls draws the attention of scouts for the Klong Prem boxing team, he trains in Muay Thai kickboxing, makes it onto the team and fights in the inter-prison league. Another director might have bent this raw material into a redemptive arc but there's no room for sentiment among the packed bodies in Sauvaire's shots.
This film is about flesh in motion. Cinematographer David Ungaro fills the screen with thighs, torsos and biceps, slick with sweat or spattered with blood. Bodies overlap in this claustrophobic, sweltering world without privacy. In the lulls between outbreaks of violence, inmates slap one another on the back, wrap arms around waists and lay hands on one another to administer tattoos or massage.
Fight scenes fast-forward the parade of flesh into a visceral, impressionistic blur. The camera feints and lunges alongside Cole, and circles his masklike face at quieter moments as though seeking to breach the character's reserve.
We first see Moore from behind, seated in one corner of a Bangkok boxing ring, a wedge of muscle thrust forward from the waist, his cue-ball head hunched below his beefy shoulders like an afterthought. He's a body moving in the present tense, responding to fear, need, desperation and aggression. Cole delivers a dazzlingly physical performance, making you believe in the skills that spell survival for his character in prison: inscrutable reserve and propensity for extreme violence.
Sauvaire has given his protagonist no backstory. Even when Moore's father visits him in prison, the scene is played without dialogue — the father is played by the real Moore, gazing impassively at Cole as his younger self, giving nothing away.
Instead, entree into Moore's psyche is provided by the soundtrack, masterfully designed by Foley artist Nicolas Becker (Gravity, Enter the Void). Becker crafts an engrossing soundscape that intersperses Southeast Asian-style percussion ensembles, Buddhist chants and electronic drone. These coincide with Moore's intermittent escapes from consciousness via snatches of sleep, concussion or solitary confinement. These are experienced by him — and us — as moments of relief from rage, frustration, claustrophobia and fear.
The moments of inarticulate grace Moore shares with ladyboy inmate Fame, played with regal self-possession by Pornchanok Mabklang, are played so close to the vest that dialogue would seem superfluous. When Moore makes the kickboxing team and his new teammates give him a tattoo, this silent initiation rite becomes near-transcendent; almost imperceptibly, a gathering of murderous thugs morphs into a laying on of hands. The director seems to intimate that this skin-on-skin connection is the stuff of which brotherhood is forged.
Exploring the toxicity of violence in highly regimented, all-male environments is nothing new for Sauvaire: His previous feature Johnny Mad Dog, about child soldiers in the Liberian civil war, starred former child soldiers, and this production is likewise characterized by a powerful sense of verisimilitude. Sauvaire filmed in a deserted Thai prison; Cole reportedly trained in Muay Thai boxing for the role and, in the film's visceral close-up views of fighting and training, it shows. R. 116M. MINOR (through Sept. 6).
— Gabrielle Gopinath
*Due to the Labor Day holiday, updated listings were not available for Broadway or Mill Creek theaters. See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
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THE INCREDIBLES 2. This fun, clever and funny sequel is worth the wait, with the returning cast and the right villains for our times. Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter. PG. 118m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
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— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill