Thoughts On: Chef - Tonal Arc: The Bliss Of Low-Steak Drama


Chef - Tonal Arc: The Bliss Of Low-Steak Drama

Quick Thoughts: Chef (2014)

A father and son get to know each other on the road selling food out of a truck.

Chef is a beautifully written, beautifully structured movie. And, despite the traditional and commercial facade of this movie, it hides a very unconventional script beneath its skin. Take almost any of the bigger films from the last 2 or 3 years - Interstellar, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Boyhood, Gone Girl, Whiplash, Edge Of Tomorrow, Mad Max, The Martian, Sicario, Star Wars, The Revenant, La La Land, Moonlight, Spotlight, Manchester By The Sea, Fences, Arrival, Zootopia, Suicide Squad - take any of these movies, some of which are fucking amazing, and you can identify 1 pivotal reoccurring detail:

Tonal Arc

A tonal arc pretty much encompasses the feeling of a movie and how that changes over the course of a narrative. Traditional structure dictates that you start on a base-line - it can be upbeat, downbeat, doesn't matter. Moving into the second act with your inciting incident, pressure builds - characters start to lose things, relationships turn bad, bad guys start peeking over the horizon, things take a negative twist. This will brew and brew and brew until the third act's final conflict. From here the screenwriter will choose to take a negative turn or a positive one, giving you an upbeat resolution or a tragic ending.

A structure like this is often the default as screenwriters assume that this is how you excite an audience, how you keep them invested and how you allow your character to change. So, compare Suicide Squad to Arrival to Star Wars to Moonlight and you will see this trend. What Chef proves is that this isn't the only way to successfully structure a movie; more importantly, Chef demonstrates that characters can change, learn and develop without the constant pressure of conflict.

Because of this, and not recognising the subtle profundity of this structure, many would just call this film 'feel good'. Chef is, technically, a feel good movie as it makes you... well... feel good. However, almost all feel good movies have a very similar structure.


All of these movies have incredibly similar set-ups, conflicts and resolution. Main characters start out unsatisfied and wanting change. However, they hit a barrier and must work for the majority of the movie to fight to get over that. By the end, they face that barrier head on, win the race, get the girl, find success or achieve happiness. This is great, it's often wonderful - I love each and everyone of these movies. But, when something different comes along that demands credit where credit is due, you gotta give it.

This is what Chef is. It has flawlessly constructed characters who are all self-aware and very human. This means that they understand one another, that they have hubris, but work with each other to have things sail smoothly. In such, you will see Carl raise an issue, fuck up or fall short, but then see his son, Percy, turn around and say it's ok, accept his apology or raise his phone saying "it's sorted". This is contrived, to a certain extent, but it works so well because the characters are so well written with rounded, believable traits. Whilst I could argue that these characters aren't written to a level where, if shit did go south and truly testing events were raised, that I'd care or be invested, this simply isn't the movie that was designed around these characters. Instead, the movie that has been constructed is purposefully self-aware and focused on maintaining a positive tone. This gives no true contour and arc to the tone of the overall narrative, but it undeniably works wonders. And in such, this movie perfectly conveys a simple story of a father and son getting to know one another. This narrative message suits the consistently upbeat tone as not every kid is the douche teenager from Manchester By The Sea - and I'm so grateful for that and the portrayal of this in Chef. If the kid started pissing, moaning and crying to his father, I'd want to just tap out. There is an understanding of that in a movie like Chef - one that doesn't feel the need to be dark, gritty and incredibly emotional. It says its piece and it's over - that's the beauty of this kind of structure.

So, great characters, great editing, flawless structure. The movie isn't 2001, it isn't The Seventh Seal, it isn't Bicycle Thieves - but, that's ok. If you haven't seen Chef yet, or haven't seen it recently, certainly check it out and revel in the tonal bliss of the low-stakes, self-aware characters and golden structure.

Other than that, what are your thoughts? And if you want to check out the movies mentioned that I've covered, feel free to explore the film list or...


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