The most impressive thing about the film studio A24, aside from the genuinely fantastic films they’ve produced over the last decade or so, is that the studio is not afraid to take risks. They’ll spend money on scripts about gay drug dealers (Moonlight) and hipster-assed, Epstein brained conspiracy thrillers (Under the Silver Lake) when other studios are focused on what blockbusters can generate the most profit. Comparing a work like The Lighthouse (A24’s homoerotic Lovecraftian horror drama set in a lighthouse) to Avengers: Endgame and its obvious which film has more creative vision and artistic integrity. The Lighthouse is so good I now think Robert Pattinson is a fantastic actor, so that’s not nothing. Even the films that aren’t perfect usually have something about their story or the way they’re shot that makes them memorable. I’ve watched A24 films I haven’t liked, but no film of theirs I’ve seen has been a waste of time. An example of a film that’s interesting but not perfect is A24’s 2017 prison drama A Prayer Before Dawn. Following the story of real life British criminal and boxer turned author Billy Moore, played by Joe Cole of Peaky Blinders and Green Room. It’s a fairly typical prison redemption story a la The Shawshank Redemption. A man messes up and is put in prison, he sees horrible things, and is eventually able to overcome them through the relationships he forms with people inside based around a common interest. In this case, the thing that saves Moore is the embracing of sanctioned prison Muay Thai fights that allow him to keep his focus and hope during his imprisonment.
What makes this film different, and what was used heavily in previews I saw of it before it came out, was that the film was set in an actual Thai prison with actual Thai inmates serving as extras. The conditions of the prison in the film are alarming, even by the standards of American shows like Oz. All the standard prison-film tropes of cramped, filthy living spaces and savage violence are here, amplified to pulse racing extremes by the unfamiliar customs of Thailand and the clear lack of money dedicated to its prison system. The film is at points extremely slow, the monotony of some scenes mimicking the monotony and ennui of prison life. This makes certain scenes: Billy’s drug withdrawal, some of the fight scenes and an agonizingly long prison rape sequence all the more visceral when they do happen. Billy’s actual arc, from violent drug dealer to reformed man is spiced up with the influence Thai culture has on Billy’s life. Billy view of Muay Thai takes on a spiritual reverence by the end of the film, with him wearing traditional dress during the anti-climactic final match. Billy also softens in his views towards the transgender ‘ladyboys’ of Thai culture which culminates in a romance and later friendship with a trans inmate in the prison. It’s ending is weird, but touching and though it’s not what one expects from a prison movie. It’s an awesome watch. Whether on film or in print, you’ll find few stories more compelling than Billy Moore’s A Prayer Before Dawn.
The main meat of the book follows pretty much the same beats as the film. A man goes to Thailand, commits crimes, is forced to survive brutal conditions and a language barrier with the help kickboxing as a way to help cope with his situation. All the things that make the film compelling are also there: prison corruption, horrifying violence, et al, but with the added context of brief descriptions of Billy’s hardscrabble life before he went to Thailand, and enough of what came after to show the true depth of his recovery and first step at returning to regular life. The true strength of this memoir is that Billy Moore, for all his faults, is a fundamentally decent guy. Some memoirs have a tendency to place the blame on others for things done wrong, or to make excuses for the behavior of the author. Billy owns up to every drug deal and fight he engages in. He tries to be a better person no matter how many times he stumbles. You can’t help but root for him.
The main differences between the film and book versions of A Prayer Before Dawn is that the two works have vastly different goals. The film version is meant to be a piece of art. It wants to look good. It wants to shock you with its graphic depictions of life in a Thai prison. It’s successful on both these counts and is overall a beautiful film. As inspiring as the written version of Moore’s story of perseverance can be, it is an ugly one. The nonfiction version of this story is meant to be a source of inspiration. It’s the sort of story you share on speaking tours or in front of kids from the Scared Straight program. It’s not supposed to be pretty. Billy Moore writes effectively, but he’s not a writer. His depictions of his prison time are vivid, but the books style is matter-of-fact and abrupt. It lacks the flow that professional prose has. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s a hell of an adjustment if you saw the film first.
Speaking of which, the on-screen Moore is also markedly different from the real-life Moore of the book. Both Moore’s develop a love and appreciation for Thai culture. Moore specifically makes a reference to his love of Thai curries which is probably the part of the book I identified most with. The actual Moore displays a level of disgust towards transgender inmates that never goes away through the entirety of the book. The film Moore’s romance with a ‘ladyboy’ inmate was one of the more touching aspects of the film, the fact that it’s fiction is a crushing disappointment. I don’t judge Moore for his beliefs, he’s allowed to think what he wants. Despite his personal thoughts, he displays a ‘live and let live’ attitude towards most people, whatever he may think of them. The world would be a better place if Moore’s treatment of marginalized groups was the baseline.
Quote of the Story:
“I came out punching fast, but Pon was quick and parried my punches easily, continuing with some of his own. In boxing, footwork is essential and I used mine well, moving in quickly, bobbing and weaving from side to side, feigning a jab and coming over the top with a solid, right cross which connected with Pon’s nose. Blood gushed from a cut on the bridge of his nose and spattered the already bloodstained canvas. Pon took the punch well, slipped to my left side and sent a huge left hook to my kidney. I dropped to one knee as pain engulfed me.” –Billy Moore
Keep or Donate?:
This is the kind of book that will either be a solid read or completely change your life. My life hasn’t been nearly as hard as Billy Moore’s, so even though I enjoyed the book, I didn’t quite identify with the sometimes inhuman struggles he had to overcome. If you identify with Moore and taken inspiration from his story, keep the book. If you’re like me, enjoy it and then donate. Then re-watch the movie.