It’s a question we hear and think about all too often these days. That said, it is an entirely fair one. Is it reasonable for a movie to have a runtime longer than the time it takes to drive from Letterkenny to Dublin? Martin Scorsese certainly seems to think so, with his new film Killers of the Flower Moon clocking in at a whopping 206 minutes.
Killers is a perfect film to use as a lens in which to try answer the question of can a movie be too long. When we think of a film with an extraordinary runtime, are we merely reducing the purpose of a film to alleviating boredom? Would we be as inclined to make this sort of provocation about other art forms?
That is not to say that entertainment is an optional trait in a good film at all. Just because a film tells an important story does not mean that it’s automatically great, especially if you’re left bored the whole time. It should just be noted that film is, at the end of the day, art, and entertaining is not an artist’s only job.
Runtime would barely make my (short) list of critiques of Killers of the Flower Moon. Sure, you need to make sure you go to the bathroom first if you’re seeing it in the cinema, but that is pretty much its only fault regarding its duration.
One of the things that Scorsese’s newest feature shows us is cinema’s role in telling stories that need to be told. Many have referred to Killers as the director’s “most important” film, and it may just be. What is interesting about it is that it demonstrates just how stories, which have not reached as many people as they perhaps should have, can be spread through the art from of film.
Of course, the human brain does require a certain amount or entertainment or interest. It is completely fair to say that it is easier to tolerate 90 minutes of a bad movie rather than 190. A film must earn a long runtime. Some movies only need a short amount of time to tell their stories, but some need far longer, and these films are left with the uphill task of keeping the audience engaged for an extended period of time.
The dismissal of a movie simply because it has a long runtime is an unfair one. The argument can also be said the other way. Short films are just another form of telling a cinematic story. While they don’t attract the same amount of ridicule for their runtimes, they are certainly not as popular as normal feature films. Recently, Wes Anderson, when adapting a set of Roald Dahl books to film, identified short film to be the best option as it allowed for the best retelling of the stories.
Indeed, a movie can also be too short. The simple fact is that movies are stories. Stories will vary wildly in how long they take to tell. It is up to the creators of the films to determine how long that is. And often, the conclusion they come to will lead to much criticism. However, it is unfair to chastise a film for being too long based on length alone. Instead, after seeing a movie, we should ask ourselves “did they need all of that time to tell that story?”
As the American film critic Roger Ebert said, “no good movie is too long, and no bad movie is short enough.”