As far as I can tell, Robert Richardson is one of the few working cinematographers who have a clear style, like a trademark that stamps their names on their work. To be honest, I’m not even really sure that’s a good thing, but it does make some sort of quality assurance when you go to see a Robert Richardson film. He’s always been big on bold lighting, which is facilitated by some really precise control of the light falloff. You can trace it at least as far back as his first Oscar win for “JFK” (1991), in which he used diffusion filters to make his bright highlights bloom and pop off the screen. He created a habit of lighting actors by bouncing light off the table in front of them, which of course creates a hot spot on the table itself, one of the best examples of this is the scene between Colonel Hans Landa and Monsieur LaPadite in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009). He’s also been a friend of intense backlights that completely cut the actors out of their backgrounds. Basically, where most cinematographers would say the lighting is too much and dial it back a bit, Richardson brazenly embraces it, and he’s made a successful career out of it, having won 3 Oscars.
The thing about “Django” is that on its own, it’s really great work cinematographically, but in the context of Richardson’s oeuvre, it’s just kind of meh. It’s a lot of what we’ve come to expect from a Richardson film without much of anything unique. He’s gotten to the point in his decades long career in which he’s battling mostly against himself. He’s proven that he’s among the best working cinematographers, but the question is whether he can continue to perform at that level and even surpass his previous efforts. Yes, he does wonderful things with soft, flattering key lights for the actors that are impeccably well controlled and he balances competing light sources with an eye for artistry that only Richardson could pull off, but there was nothing special. It didn’t offer the amazingly diverse range of compositions and camera movements, which were constantly furthering the story like we saw in “Inglourious Basterds.” There was none of the eerie dead on camera angles or motivated lighting effects like “Shutter Island” (2010). Instead throughout the film, it felt like Richardson was playing it safe. He knows that he can pull off hot pools of light and how to adequately cover a scene, but that was mostly all he had to offer.
The one stand out bit of camerawork that Richardson managed to incorporate was the iconic snap zooms that really captured the spirit of the film. It immediately let us know that we couldn’t take the film too seriously. Throughout the story they kept coming back to it, almost like a little reminder to say, “This is fiction.” That’s a lot to accomplish with just the choice of one camera trick, so I won’t say that Richardson went completely mindless on this one. But it could’ve been better.
What that really makes me wonder is how valuable it is to even have such a distinct style. At this point, it seems like Richardson’s style has run its course; the artistry has dissipated. Now it’s just become systematic, like he’s an assembly line worker with only one very well honed skill. He just keeps pumping out films with a very similar aesthetic. On the other hand, some of the best cinematographers are known for working on films that are so diametrically disparate visually that you wonder how they could both come from the same person. Darius Khondji, for example, did wonderful stark lighting in the film “Seven” (1995) and then something so naturalistic that you have to wonder if they even had a lighting package for “Amour” (2012). Khondji’s kind of adaptability is much more valuable than Richardson’s tendency to being locked into one way of working. Overall, Richardson has done some phenomenal work, but over time it has gotten tired.