Joker floored me. It was a refreshing departure from the forgettable superhero movies that are so trendy (the other angle being the comedic relief from Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool). That aside for a moment, it was also a masterpiece from a photography point of view. Not gon’ lie — I was surprised that the director and DOP are the same team who made Hangover. I sat in the dark theatre and admired each shot in its gritty and well-thought out glory. I wanted to break down my favourite shots from the movie, this portrait of the Joker.
Framing this favourite shot from the movie
This is probably my favourite shot from the movie (I later watched an interview with Todd Philips, the director of Joker, and he also said this was his favourite shot of the movie). Arthur Fleck gets his sign snatched and after chasing the kids who stole the sign, he gets ambushed and beaten up in an alley. The shot focuses on Arthur lying and gasping in pain and to catch his breath as the kids run off, and slowly pans out to reveal the debris of the sign. He tries to reach for the sign, as if to fix it, before he gives up in the futility of the gesture. Arthur then offhandedly presses the flower on his jacket to squirt water, in a sad display of how he can find humour in the whole episode. The shot is just so beautifully framed in his symmetry and play with depth of field (shallow focus on the floor in the foreground and the alley in the background). The garbage and debris strewn around him seem accidental, but somehow conveys a deliberateness that makes the entire shot seem balanced. I don’t think I or anyone could have framed this one shot any better.
Catchlights are that glint you find in the eyes of a subject. They suggest intelligence and personality, and in the case of the Joker, menace and the potential of violence. In an opening scenes start with Arthur talking to his counsellor and looking down as he takes deep drags from his cigarette. Then he suddenly looks up and you catch that gleam in his eye. That left me breathless. Japanese anime artists know how to use this. Some anime characters take on light, affable personalities but when pushed to their limits, can suddenly shift to their alter ego aspects. They suddenly look up and you see a steely, red-blue glint at the top of their eyes that makes anyone give pause. As a photographer, I want to continue to learn how to engineer the right catchlights to accentuate my subject’s personality in a portrait.
Portrait of the Joker — A study in pensiveness
In this portrait you see Arthur Fleck 2.0 in his Joker-esque suit and signature green hair and painted face. He sits in a powder room as he waits to go on stage to reap his vengeance. The calm before the storm. He sits with his back against the glaring lights, legs crossed, as he dangles a cigarette in his hand and stares off into nothing. The first thing that comes to mind is utter confidence and the relaxed strength of his composure. He knows what he is to do next (or not) but he gives off none of the jittery nervousness and uncertainty that was there before his transformation. Simply put, this is one of the first times he’s truly himself. I love this photo so much because it resembles something out of a fashion magazine, except this isn’t an actor in his dressing room. We’ve broken down the 3rd wall and moved into his space, and we are now observing The Joker himself. It is chilling and sent chills down my spine.
Dancing as if no one were looking
After Arthur / Joker / Joaquin kills the 3 bankers on the train, he flees the scene in a panic until he locks himself in alone a public bathroom. I expected a scene of conflict and remorse, but instead, he begins this sequence of dance. It is as if he lets the energy flow through himself, and he revels in this actions. Not in a way that he is exhilarated about his murders, but rather a quiet, self-reflective catharsis. He sways and postures as if the camera and audience were not there. What might seem silly now becomes poetic, and theatrical. He looks a frightful mess but he projects the aura and confidence of a thespian on stage. In this one screenshot above, we see a stolen moment here. I like how his right hand is moving into the foreground while his equally eloquent left wanders to complete his ballad, his glance downwards filled with pain.
I like the idea of shooting actors because I think it takes some darkness and complexity to do the job, to absorb a personality, to understand it and make it your own. Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant. If you watch him in Gladiator, Her and now Joker, you get a sense of who the man is behind the portrait. I don’t know Joaquin, or am even a fanboy who delves deeply into his personal history. But just from his portraits and his movies, I get the sense that he’s an incredibly sensitive soul. A complicated man, full of vulnerability and doubts but capable of strong bright feelings and love. I think that, on some level, I can identify with him.