The Delinquents

Long story short

Movie length seems to have become a way for directors to tell us what serious people they are

On Cinema

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

If I had the skills to hack the computers of the Apple Corporation, I wouldn’t go hunting for the specs of the new iPhone. What I want to know, more than anything, is at what point the people at home stop watching Killers of the Flower Moon.

Martin Scorsese’s vastly overpraised drama is now streaming on Apple TV, which funded the film. But at three and a half hours long, what per centage of the audience is getting through it in one shift?

How many people are deciding that it’s late in the evening, there’s another 90 minutes to go, and nothing has really happened yet, so they might as well leave the rest until tomorrow? Which leads me to my next question: how many of them ever finish it?

Like doorstop airport novels that conflate import with page count, movie length seems to have become a way for directors to tell us what serious people they are. Sometimes this can be excused: when you consider that the 1927 film of Napoleon Bonaparte’s early life weighs in at over nine hours, Ridley Scott could be said to have done quite well to get the whole thing in at under three hours. Other times, as with Scorsese’s latest film, it just feels self-indulgent.

(As for Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-conquering Oppenheimer, I have what is probably a niche complaint: I’m fascinated by the scientific, engineering and political challenges of making and dropping the atomic bomb, but bored by the hero’s miserable adulteries. So my feeling wasn’t so much that the film was too long as that it was long about the wrong things.)

I resent films of this length. Let’s be honest: at my age, my bladder can handle a three-hour screening only if I drink nothing at all in the hours beforehand. So you can get me into a long film, but your business model better not include selling me an overpriced drink on the way in.

Long movies either start too early or finish too late. Unless children can watch them too, they are impossible for parents. I can only speak for myself, but at no point in the last 18 years has it been straightforward to take three hours to go to the cinema (once you include travel and trailers, you’re going to need a sitter for five hours). As for home viewing, anything much over two hours is getting broken up into episodes, whatever the director intended.

It’s not just that there are more and more three-hour evening-killers. You’re more likely to find yourself watching a two-hour film than you were 30 years ago. In those days, studios knew that a 100-minute film could be cut up with advert breaks to neatly fill a two-hour timeslot on television.

These days, streaming has made that less of a concern, and they seem to fear that anything much under 120 minutes will feel insubstantial to audiences shelling out for cinema tickets.

Meanwhile the digitisation of cinema has made it easier to shoot more. When films were made on, well, film, a longer movie cost more to both make and distribute. Scott, filming Napoleon with a dozen high-definition cameras running simultaneously, simply has more material available to him when he’s in the editing suite.

Timothée Chalamet in Dune: Part Two

A couple of weeks ago I watched two three-hour movies in two days. The first, Dune: Part Two, was at least a proper epic. The novel that director Denis Villeneuve is more-or-less faithfully adapting is twice the length of a normal book, so it’s probably fair enough that he takes more than five hours over two films to do it. And the film has plenty of both plot and action to keep things zipping along.

The second, The Delinquents, was an Argentine heist movie that I badly wanted to like, if only because I have a soft spot for the 2000 Argentine heist film Nine Queens, and I irrationally hoped, on the basis of this single data point, that heist movies might simply be something at which Argentina was brilliant.

There was indeed much to like about The Delinquents, a tale of two bank clerks trying to escape the drudgery of their lives. The cast was charming, and the premise intriguing. But blimey it was long.

Given that the essential mechanics of the film’s robbery are simple enough to be explained in the trailer, there’s no excuse for demanding the best part of three hours to tell the subsequent tale of personal awakening.

In the days when I started in journalism, reporters on the road would file a story by dictating it down the line to a professional typist. It was an amazing way of improving your writing: as you stood in a cold phone booth, reading out loud from your notebook, you quickly realised what was wrong with your copy.

Worst of all came the moment when the woman at the other end — it always seemed to be a woman — would interrupt to ask, in a bored tone: “Is there much more of this?” All those copytakers were laid off decades ago, but they’ll still be out there somewhere. An enterprising producer could do worse than hiring a bunch of them to listen to directors outlining their screenplays down the phone.

Nothing would improve the quality of modern cinema more than the sound of a Leith grandmother sipping her tea, sighing, and saying: “Marty, how much longer is this going to take?”

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover