Hiding in Plain Sight

One of the things that interests me with Tom Stall from “A History of Violence” is the duality of his character. In particular, how convincingly and effectively he is able to portray a caring father and husband to his wife Edie and children Jack and Sarah, while concealing his true identity as a violent gangster from Philadelphia. Tom Stall is not only a caring family man but is also an upstanding member of the community, who goes to church, takes an interest in his children’s lives and runs a local diner. This is what makes Tom Stall’s duality all the more shocking, as these two version of his character are in direct opposition from one another. One as a typical American man with wholesome family values and the other a cold-blooded killer who’s affiliated with the mob in Philadelphia.

Notably, Tom Stall’s character is juxtaposed to the heinous actions in the opening sequence of the film, putting him in direct opposition to violence, which makes his “double life” as a noble citizen and a gangster all the more surprising. As this character portrays both “Tom Stall” and “Joey Cusack” throughout the film.

After surveying the landscape of readings relating to Tom Stall from “A History of Violence” I was able to discern many similar patterns of his character. I was also able to discern several diversities amongst the different articles I surveyed. In Liz Powell’s article “The Good, the Bad and the American: Interrogating the Morality of the Western in A History of Violence” Tom Stall is shown as a typical all-American male. According to Powell he is an embodiment of a quintessential small-town American citizen as he loves his wife and two children, owns a diner and has active roles in his community such as going to church.

When Tom Stall’s former identify as a gang member is revealed, this author believes that Tom Stall’s turmoil with his family is far from resolved. This is evident in the final scene in which Tom Stall returns home after a killing spree and joins his family at the dinner table, where there is a tension and silence that is made ostensible by Tom Stall’s conflicting feelings and facial expressions. In many articles there are similar patterns showing the character of Tom Stall transitioning from a civilized man with family values, with a warm loving family, then to unmask his hidden identity, revealing a killer with a dark past.

In contrast, Amy Taubin’s article “Model Citizens: Nothing Is Quite What It Seems in A History of Violence, Subversive Vision of Homeland” portrays Tom Stall as a not having a fixed identity. That is to say that he doesn’t have an identity that he can call his own, whether that would be Tom Stall or Joey Cusack. This is a different construction of Tom Stall than the one which Liz Powell suggests because Amy Tabuin is suggesting that Tom Stall doesn’t have a single fixed identity which changes during the narrative (from Tom Stall to Joey Cusack). But, rather, Taubin is suggesting that he never has a distinguishable identity at all throughout the narrative, he is instead driven by different motivations. One motivation being to protect his family and wife from learning about his past, and the other to embrace his darker side in spite of his family’s state of turmoil during his different killing sprees.

Tom Stall is a seemingly ordinary middle-class American man who lives in Millbrook, Indiana. He owns a dinner and has caring wife named Edie, along with a son named Jack and younger daughter named Sarah. In stark contrast to his ordinary, Tom is formerly a gang member by the name of “Joey Cusack”, he had business with the Irish Mob in Philadelphia but attempts to hide that fact from his wife and children. Tom Stall can’t keep this information from his family which creates tension amongst them. Offering a new perspective on this character.

Liz Powell offers a new perspective on Tom Stall in her article “The Good, the Bad, and the American: Interrogating the Morality of the Western in A History of Violence”. In this article Tom Stall’s character is depicted as an embodiment of American and Western values. Tom Stall is shown in direct opposition to the evil in the opening sequence of this film where two men murder a manager and maid in a rural motel, then shooting a young girl who was a bystander.

This form of evil and extreme violence comes without motivation and with a calm detachment from the victims and disregard for humanity. This depiction of evil is juxtaposed to Tom Stall who is shown in the following scene comforting his daughter who had just woken up from a bad dream. Interestingly, this evil is further contrasted to Tom Stall when is discovered to be Joey Cusack, a former gang member. Tom Stall’s violence is justified as he fends off two people trying to rob his diner and later does it to protect his family. Outside of the narrative itself, Liz Powell compares the Themes in “A History of Violence” and Tom Stall’s character to the aftermath of 9/11 and the saturation of evocations from the West.

This is an aspect of Tom Stall which I hadn’t yet considered. Liz Powell further argues that “his heroic character and triumph is typical of the western provided traumatized citizens with a means to make sense of, and find comfort in, the aftermath of 9/11.” This is significant because, in a sense, Tom Stall’s character here can be thought of and considered as a personification of post 9/11 trauma. As his family must now cope with the lie of his gangster past, when he sits down at the table the family members are all disconnected and struggling to cope with the current events that’ve transpired. Which is the fact that they must face the reality that their father is a former gang-member, who still had ties with the Mob during their adolescence.

On the other hand, Amy Taubin shows a different and refined perspective on Tom Stall in her article “Model Citizens Nothing Is Quite It Seems in A History of Violence, Cronenberg’s Subversive Vision of Homeland Insecurity”. This relates the narrative as well as Tom Stall to the greater theme of homeland insecurity and gives a social context to the film which I hadn’t considered myself. Furthermore, in this article the closing sequence of the film is characterized by “cognitive dissonance”, which Amy Taubin argues is part of the American way.

More specifically, Tom Stall is giving his family mental discomfort and psychological stress as he is simultaneously holding onto two contradictory beliefs and values. One of belief in being an Ordinary-American male and the other to embrace his violent side, which are conflicting ideas for Tom Stall that have negative implications on his family life. These paint a picture of a normal and simple life, which is later contrasted with Tom Stalls true identity as a gang member. I hadn’t considered the fact that Tom Stall has two different contradictory ideas, following the film I instead thought of his character as going through a moral dilemma and transition. These articles, collectively introduce new ideas about the character of Tom Stall which are undetectable at surface level.

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Film Critic based in Toronto, Canada

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Stephen Zimmermann

Stephen Zimmermann

Film Critic based in Toronto, Canada

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