Movies with hefty runtimes can be an incredible artform like no other. Throughout the history of cinema (dating back to the days of Abel Gance‘s five-hour-long Napoleon epic in 1927), filmmakers have long recognized the value of letting their stories play out on lengthy canvases. In the modern world, this tradition has been maintained by artists like Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who understand the power of keeping viewers transfixed in a darkened room for extensive periods of time. In 2023 alone, this style of cinema has been carried on by titles ranging from Christopher Nolan‘s Oppenheimer to Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour (11 minutes shy of three hours) and especially Martin Scorsese‘s Killers of the Flower Moon. The latter title runs for 3 hrs and 26 mins, which is the kind of expansive runtime that Scorsese has regularly dabbled in during his career (The Irishman was 3 hrs and 29 mins long). Through these and other projects, master filmmakers have the room to tell truly epic narratives and give challenging ideas plenty of room to breathe. There are really endless virtues to watching great directors committing to extensive narratives.
Even with so many great motion pictures that need their lengthy runtimes, three-hour-plus movies have gotten a bad rap, with people turning down the opportunity to watch such a feature no matter what its plot or cast is. The very idea of sitting so long is an immediate turn-off. This perception has become so widespread that it even crept into the 94th Academy Awards. This was when Amy Schumer made a lengthy joke at the expense of The Power of the Dog mocking its runtime as too long despite the Jane Campion feature running for only 126 minutes, or just four minutes longer than Sonic the Hedgehog 2. It’s a silly argument on many levels, but it’s especially ridiculous when considering how many modern motion pictures have demonstrated what kind of unforgettable cinema you can only get with lengthy movies.
Let’s just get this out of the way right now: not being a fan of super-long movies doesn’t make you a “bad” fan of movies or some kind of heathen. There are countless valid reasons for people to be wary of engaging with an elongated motion picture. Most notably, I’ve got countless friends who are also parents who have a single kid or hordes of youngsters to look after. 180+ minutes of cinematic storytelling is a significant commitment when you’re a parent who also has to tend to kids. Some people with younglings can still find the energy to watch something as hearty and harrowing as Oppenheimer at the end of the day, but others understandably would rather watch something shorter after exerting so much effort during the day.
You don’t need to have a bouncing baby in your arms, though, to be valid in not immediately leaping at 180+ minute movies all the time. For many people, watching features is simply a way to provide background noise while doing other tasks or hanging out with friends rather than something you exclusively focus on for multiple hours. Since many longer movies, like An Elephant Sitting Still or any of the works of Béla Tarr, are famous for being such quiet exercises known for requiring great amounts of concentration, they’re not going to fit these people’s contexts of what a movie “needs to do.” That sounds a bit strange to me as someone who solely concentrates on any movie I’m watching whether it’s A Matter of Life and Death or The Wrong Missy, but then again, some sports devotees would think it’s weird that I can remember off the top of my head when Daybreakers hit theaters. What’s normal behavior to one person is foreign territory to another, but that unfamiliarity doesn’t make that behavior “wrong.”
All of this is to say that this defense of three-hour-plus movies isn’t directed at the general public, but rather movie studios and other people in positions of power. In recent years, possibly as a way to combat the ubiquity of streaming shows and their 70-80-minute-long episodes, we have seen a greater number of super-long movies make their way to the big screen. However, predominantly, Hollywood has steered clear of three-hour-plus films mostly out of fear that making features this long will ensure fewer theatrical screenings and, by proxy, less money at the box office. Such capitalistic concerns, however, ignore the countless artistic merits of a movie running 180 minutes or longer.
One of the greatest cinematic experiences I ever had was seeing The Irishman in a crowded theater. Despite relentless jokes about how “The Irishman is so looooong,” this crowd was enraptured with the feature. Barely anyone went to the bathroom during its runtime and when Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is in that kitchen gradually realizing he’s being asked to kill his pal Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), you could hear gasps in the room. Over three hours into this movie, people were still profoundly invested in what was happening on the screen. Why wouldn’t they be? The expansive scope of director Martin Scorsese in The Irishman more than warrants every minute of that 210-minute runtime. The haunting emptiness of that final shot wouldn’t hit as hard if we hadn’t followed Sheeran through a lifetime of betrayal and violence.
The Irishman is a perfect example of the kind of immersive and expansive storytelling that’s only possible when movies are allowed to run for so long. You really feel like you’re living the lives of other people over the course of three hours, with this runtime affording filmmakers a chance to fill in every nook and cranny of a person’s life. This length can also be a perfect opportunity to explore gradual changes in a person, such as in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 2021 masterpiece Drive My Car. Here, audiences don’t see years in the life of protagonist Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) as he grapples with the ripple effects of loss.
Instead, the slower pace of the three-hour story lets viewers recognize a realistic depiction of gradual psychological improvement, however minimal. These things don’t happen overnight and the expansive length of Drive My Car allows that aspect of reality to be beautifully reflected. This runtime also allows important sequences like Kafuku sharing a dinner with Lee Yoo-na (Park Yu-rim) and her partner Gong Yoon-soo (Jin Dae-yeon) all the time they need to breathe. Given how critical these exchanges are to Drive My Car‘s depiction of people’s varying responses to life-altering events, they shouldn’t be rushed. These characters aren’t looking to leave the scene immediately and Drive My Car’s runtime ensures that the audience doesn’t need to exist promptly either.