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A Prayer Before Dawn

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A Prayer Before Dawn

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.

Previews

JULIET, NAKED. Awkward triangle between an American has-been musician (Ethan Hawke), his English pen pal (Rose Byrne) and her fanboy boyfriend (Chris O'Dowd). R. 105M. MINOR.

THE KING AND I (1956). Deborah Kerr, Yul Brynner in MC Hammer pants and yellowface, Rodgers & Hammerstein songs, etcetera, etcetera. PG. 101M. BROADWAY.

LET THE CORPSES TAN. French robbers stash their gold bullion on an island where their plans to hide out are thrown by a couple and a pair of cops in this shoot-em-up. R. 92M. MINOR.

MADELINE'S MADELINE. Performance and reality blur when a physical theater director (Molly Parker) pushes a young participant (Helena Howard) to draw from her personal life. R. 93M. MINOR.

NICO 1968. Biopic following the Warhol-era star, musician and addict on tour the year of her death. Starring Tryne Dyrholm. R. 93m. MINIPLEX.

THE NUN. Taissa Farmiga and Demián Bichir investigate creepy goings on for the Vatican in this Conjuring 2 prequel/spinoff. R. 96m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

PEPPERMINT. Jennifer Garner as a mother-turned-vigilante/MS-13 political ad, gunning down gangsters. R. 102m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

Continuing

ALPHA. Dramatization of an Ice Age hunter who teams up with a wolf to survive. PG13. 96M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. Tiny Paul Rudd tackles big problems with his new, flying partner (Evangeline Lilly). A less portentous Marvel movie than we've seen of late. PG-13. 125M. BROADWAY.

BLACKKKLANSMAN. Spike Lee's true-story drama about an African American cop (John David Washington) infiltrating the Klan is a crackling tale of intrigue, a character study and a painfully relevant look at a bygone era. R. 135M. BROADWAY, MINOR.

BLINDSPOTTING. Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal star as friends at a crossroads — one keeping his nose clean, the other a criminal mess — in a thoughtful, hilarious, heartbreaking story about Oakland, America, race, masculinity and economic disparity told with raw authenticity. R. 95M. MINOR.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN. Pooh gets real with Ewan McGregor as the boy from the books. PG. 104M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS. A joyful, glamorous rom-com starring Constance Wu in full movie-star mode and Michelle Yeoh staring us all down. With Henry Golding and Awkwafina. PG13. 120M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS. This dark, raunchy, noir Muppet-esque comedy starring Bill Barretta and Melissa McCarthy could have been more of all those things, but it's still funny in the wrongest way. R. 91M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

HOTEL TRANSLYVANIA 3: SUMMER VACATION. Monsters on a cruise in this animated sequel. PG. 97m. BROADWAY.

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.

KIN. A boy (Myles Truitt) finds a possibly alien weapon and uses it to fend off his ex-con brother's (Jack Reynor) debtors and the pair's faceless pursuers. PG13. 102M. BROADWAY.

THE MEG. Jason Statham lands a big one with this brisk giant shark movie with better effects and performances than expected. You're gonna need a bigger popcorn. PG13. 113M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

MILE 22. Mark Wahlberg frowns into more gunsights as he transports a cop who knows too much for the CIA in this Peter Berg action movie. R. 95M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT. A lean, engaging return for the MI team, led by Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt. Excellent stunts, fights and effects raise the bar in this sixth and best installment of the franchise. PG13. 147M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

OPERATION FINALE. Fifteen years after World War II, an Israeli agent hunts down a Nazi in Argentina. PG13. 123M. BROADWAY.

THE SLENDER MAN. Teen girls summon the internet-driven urban legend to rescue their friend. PG13. 93M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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About The Author

Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath

Bio:
Gabrielle Gopinath is a writer and art critic whose essays have appeared in journals including the San Francisco Art Quarterly, the Oxford Art Journal and the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. She received a Ph.D in the history of art from Yale University. She worked at the Louvre as a Luce-Terra fellow for... more

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