When Liverpudlian Billy Moore travelled to Thailand in 2005 it was with a making view to a fresh start away from the life of crime that had led him to various prison sentences and a crippling drug addiction. Initially, it seemed to work. By day he secured jobs that ranged from teaching English to the locals and standing in for Stallone on Rambo 4, whilst at night he would box using skills he learned as a teenage fighter in a Speke boxing club. But unfortunately, it was in Thailand that Moore was introduced to ya ba – a highly addictive form of methamphetamine – and he soon relapsed, his life descending once more into chaos and crime. The penance for such behaviour was something that no English gaol could have prepared Moore for, as pretty soon he found himself incarcerated in Chiang Mai and Klong Prem; two notorious prisons where life was cheap and ya ba was anything but. Determined to survive, Moore began to compete in the Muay Thai boxing tournaments, earning the respect of his fellow inmates and prison authorities, along with a newfound respect for himself. Upon his release and return to the UK, Moore wrote his memoir, A Prayer Before Dawn, which has been adapted by Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese for this film by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, director of 2008’s Johnny Mad Dog.
Sauvaire’s film is lean and visceral. Like the similarly themed Midnight Express, this is not a movie for the fainthearted as it explores the unspeakable brutality of the dog-eat-dog toxic masculinity of the setting with an unflinching eye. A Prayer Before Dawn is savage and sinewy, seizing us from the moment of Billy’s arrest and sending us on a suitably dizzy and disorientating assault of the senses. The dialogue is sparse, the Thai guards and inmates have a grasp of English that is naturally basic, ensuring Billy barely offers a sentence of two or more words for a good forty minutes. The implication for the viewer is immediately clear; there’s nothing here that provides comfort or a link to what we know or take for granted. The conditions of the prison are captured in graphic and unsettling detail; prisoners sleep on the floor of overcrowded, fetid cells where extreme violence, suicide, and even gang rape appears to be a daily occurrence. Fall foul of the authorities and you’re tortured cries are broadcasted by loudspeaker across the moonlit yard. There’s no respite to be had in the ring either of course, as Sauvaire captures the mauling and pummeling of the Muay Thai contests in absorbing and painful detail, making us feel as if we have stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Not so for Billy Moore of course, as it is the ring that proves to be his salvation.
Starring as Billy Moore is Joe Cole, a former National Youth Theatre player and Screen International Star of Tomorrow recipient. Cole has been no slouch in the past few years, notching up impressive credits from his breakout role as John Shelby in the hit BBC period crime drama Peaky Blinders to a BAFTA-nominated performance in the Black Mirror episode, Hang the DJ. He has even courted Hollywood with roles in last year’s veterans drama Thank You For Your Service and 2015’s cult horror Green Room, but it’s perhaps fair to say that for all that he still isn’t a household name. That slight anonymity actually works in A Prayer Before Dawn‘s favour, because what’s integral to this film is Billy’s foreignness. It is simply Cole’s milk-white torso, rather than the star status of an A-lister, that makes him stand out from the broiling tumult of similarly semi-naked and heavily inked Thai convicts. As the only westerner and English speaker incarcerated there, the bewilderment and isolation he feels is key to his specific ordeal and this is palpable for the audience too, as we are forced uncomprehending down this hellhole alongside him. The danger he faces, as warders and inmates bark and threaten, is credible in a way that a bigger name with a greater baggage of roles behind him would simply be unable to pull off. We know that just around the corner the trailer is waiting for them…with the lesser known Cole, you can believe he’s actually living this nightmare. This may not be the film that affords him the mainstream commercial breakout that is surely on the horizon, but the kudos it will gain in critical and professional circles is further proof of Cole’s ability to pick his roles well.
As for the real Billy Moore, he had to miss the film’s premiere in July and he will miss its release onto DVD and Blu-ray this week too. He’s currently residing in Walton Prison after a cancer diagnosis sent him back into the clutches of his drug addiction that only a return to crime could pay for.