A seemingly simple premise is developed into a meaningful story using an overall question as the main driver, rather than a goal.
On the surface this is a very simple premise…a calm family man (described with great economy in the screenplay as: TOM STALL, a slightly weathered husband and father of two...) fights off two robbers at his family diner and is hailed a local hero. This attention brings gangsters to the small town who claim that he’s someone else…Joey from Philly. Brother of a mob boss with whom there is unresolved business. That is it.
The screenplay starts with two criminals, Leland and Bobby, who kill an entire family at a local motel. This sets up the question of who they are and provides a bit of suspense to carry us through the subsequent sequences of setup and character intros.
The next sequence is dedicated to the intro of the Stall family. Not much happens in this sequence on the surface…it’s a typical happy family. No goals or questions in the screenwriting sense, but the daughter’s nightmares prompt two conversations about monsters, which foreshadow future events. What follows is a bit more setup and context, Tom’s diner, employees, the friendly relations among all, as well as Tom’s son Jack and his nemesis, Bobby, the local bully.
That evening, the kids are out of the house, Tom and wife Edie take advantage of the empty nest and have “high school” sex, as Edie dresses in her old cheerleading outfit. Tom proclaims that he’s the luckiest son of a bitch alive.
Their son Jack, meanwhile, smokes a joint on the town strip where he nearly misses being accosted by Bobby the bully, because he has a brief encounter with the two thugs from the opening scene, Leland and Bobby, who have arrived in this small town.
The next morning, Leland and Bobby go to Tom’s diner to stick up the place, but in a moment of quick reaction, Tom defends one of the patrons and manages to shoot both Leland and Bobby while sustaining a minor injury himself.
The next few pages deal with the aftermath and the media frenzy that plasters Tom’s face all over the evening news. This prompts the arrival of several gangsters who come to the diner and refer to Tom as Joey. This sets up the big question…is Tom whom he claims to be? Tom denies it and in his calm demeanor asks the gangsters to leave.
Edie, assuming they might be associates of Leland and Billy (another question) calls the local sheriff who intercepts them on a country road and asks them to leave. He then visits Tom at his house and probes him about them…thus escalating the main question and the stakes when he reveals to Tom and Edie that they are organized crime from the East Coast. The sheriff asks Tom if he’s in a witness protection program because after all, he’s not a town kid like the rest of them.
Tom goes back to work at the diner only to find the mobsters black sedan passing in front and heading in the direction of his house. In a panic, Tom calls Edie to tell her to get the shotgun because “they’re coming to the house.” But are they (another question)? Tom runs home in pain due to his injuries but when he gets there, no mobsters are in sight.
Edie, shopping at the mall, loses sight of her daughter and finally finds her with the main gangster, who proceeds to tell her all about Tom and his history as Joey, the brother of Richie, a Philly mobster. He asks her about Joey’s violent past.
Meanwhile, at the local high school, Jack is once again confronted by the bully Bobby. But this time he doesn’t back down, he beats Bobby to a pulp. No doubt he’s been inspired by his father’s actions. When Tom confronts him about it they get into a fight.
Edie informs Tom that she spoke to the mobster and filed a restraining order when Tom spots the gangsters in his driveway. They confront Tom and a fight breaks up. After Tom shoots some of the gangsters, the main mobster is about to kill him, and Tom finally says, “I should have killed you back in Philly.” He is Joey. But, his son Jack comes to the rescue and shoots the mobster with the shotgun.
At the hospital, Tom finally admits to Edie that he indeed is/was Joey, but that Joey is long gone and he was reborn as Tom. Edie is hurt, after all she lived a lie for twenty years. This now sets up the final question… is there a way back for Tom? Can he and his family find a way to deal with the violent events and the lie and be a family again?
It would seem so at first when Edie lies to the sheriff to protect Tom. But when she slaps him in anger, the question remains very much unanswered. Finally, when Tom receives a call from his brother and must go to Philly to deal with his past, the stakes of the question have been raised from reconciliation to survival.
In Philly, Tom deals with his brother and his goons, which resolves the question of survival, but leaves the final question unanswered. Beat up and bloody, he returns to his house, and sits at the dinner table with his family…it’s not a happy ending by any stretch, but it’s a start.
Of course, throughout the screenplay, different characters have scene and sequence goals. Leland and Billy’s goal to rob Tom’s diner; The mobster’s goal to bring Tom/Joey back to Philly; Bobby’s goal to bully Jack; the sheriff’s goals, and so on. But the overall story is built around questions and does so in an interesting way that organically escalates to a boiling point. And from a character standpoint, the resolution to the big question is the final step Tom had to go through for his renaissance.
Written by Josh Olson
Directed by David Cronenberg