In director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire's riveting Thai prison drama A Prayer Before Dawn, Peaky Blinders sensation Joe Cole stars as Billy Moore, an English-born amateur boxer living in Thailand. A meth-head who lights up before a fight, the 20-something Moore is arrested for gun possession and thrown into the infamous Klong Prem prison. Within 10 minutes of the film's start, Billy is in a cell block surrounded by throngs of Thai inmates, who berate him in a language he doesn't understand. They force him at shiv-point to witness the gang rape of a young prisoner -- a scene as harrowing for the men's nonchalance as for its violence.
Adapted by Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese from Moore's 2014 memoir, this is a film where men communicate in grunts, slaps and head locks, which Sauvaire (Johnny Mad Dog) and cinematographer David Ungaro shoot in long takes and unrelenting close-ups. Billy's cellmates, tattooed from head to toe, are played by ex-cons, and since Sauvaire filmed in a recently abandoned Bangkok prison, A Prayer Before Dawn feels scarily authentic, and may be too much for some. But there are moments of grace amid the setting's despair. Billy joins the prison boxing club, and gradually comes to know the inmates, who embrace him as one of their own. A scene where they tattoo his back is filmed as a reverent laying on of the hands -- the inverse of all the violence that came before. And the year seems unlikely to offer acting as exquisite as the small moment when the warden hands Billy unexpected letters from his family. Surprised, Billy freezes, and yet, somehow, in that non-movement of his body, Cole suggests the life-renewing soul-shock Billy is experiencing. It's a great performance in a film that's likely to become a classic of its kind.