I Know This Much Is True is a heavy, heavy show. That’s the lead I’m going with for this review. As a reporter, I was taught to put the most important information up front, and if I owe you nothing else, it’s that simple warning. In fact, I think I counted a single, lonely win for any of the characters here. The suffering in Derek Cianfrance‘s Mark Ruffalo-starring six-episode HBO series is nearly endless. And yet… and yet… I absolutely loved it.
I Know This Much Is True is devastating from start to finish. It’s the kind of show that puts you in an emotional chokehold and never lets go. And I’ll fully cop to the fact that I’m the target audience for this limited series. I adore Mark Ruffalo, I have a Place Beyond the Pines poster in my living room, and most importantly, I have two younger brothers. But there is something so brave and touching and fearless about this show and the profound way it tackles life, love, and humanity that I can’t help but think people will recognize their own struggles somewhere on the screen. The show’s unrelenting bleakness certainly won’t be for everyone, and none of the characters are especially “likable,” but I don’t need every HBO series to be as populist as Game of Thrones. Those brave enough to watch I Know This Much Is True in its entirety will be richly rewarded by this sweet, sad gem of a series, which boasts stellar writing and marvelous performances from a very impressive ensemble.
Where to begin? I Know This Much Is True is based on a 900-page 1998 novel by Wally Lamb. Set in Three Rivers, Connecticut, it’s about twin brothers Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, the latter of whom struggles with mental illness as a paranoid schizophrenic. Ruffalo plays both roles, and his introduction as Thomas is shocking, as he violently demonstrates the depths of his paranoia. The self-harm incident makes local headlines, and Thomas is institutionalized in a more prison-like facility than his usual home. Dominick vows to get Thomas transferred, but it’s easier said than done. In the meantime, Thomas is placed under the care of a social worker, Lisa Sheffer (Rosie O’Donnell), who helps Dominick navigate the hostility of the mental health system, as well as his own guilt.
In the meantime, Dominick deals with his ex-wife Dessa (Kathryn Hahn) and the fallout from their tragedy-stricken marriage, trust issues with his much younger girlfriend Joy (Imogen Poots), a strained relationship with his stepfather Ray (John Procaccino), a disturbing memory involving his late mother (Melissa Leo), a therapist (Archie Panjabi) forcing him to confront his ugly past, and a messy translator (Juliette Lewis) holding his Italian grandfather’s (Marcello Fonte) troubling memoir hostage. The series bounces back and forth from childhood to adulthood, stopping along the way to depict Dominick and Thomas as young men transitioning from high school to college, where their inseparable bond begins to fray as Thomas recedes further into himself.
Though it’s Thomas who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, the show is largely about Dominick’s own suffering. As Panjabi’s therapist character says, the Birdsey boys truly are lost in the woods together, one is just lost a little deeper than the other. There’s no question that Thomas’ disorder has a profound effect on Dominick, who sees Thomas as his responsibility. Not a burden, so much as his cross to bear in life. Watching Dom fight the guards at the mental hospital as Thomas is admitted in episode one, or watching him throw office supplies around a university when his grandfather’s memoir goes missing, is absolutely heartbreaking, because in each circumstance, you can see how helpless Dominick feels. This series is just so, so sad.
As Dominick works to get Thomas transferred, he searches for answers regarding the identity of their birth father, as Dominick has long been curious where he came from. As he slowly uncovers the truth of his lineage, we learn more about another set of mixed-race twins who the Birdseys went to school with. When all is said and done, this is the story of two families living parallel lives in pursuit of the American dream.
If there’s one flaw with this series, it’s that Dominick’s relationship with Joy gets the short shrift. Joy is obviously much younger than Dom, which creates issues on its own based on where they are in life, but she pops in and out of episodes, and you can tell her character is written differently than the book. And not to shortchange Dominick’s own mental health, but I also felt the show lost a little momentum during his therapy scenes with Panjabi. Ultimately, these are small gripes, and I understand that even a six-hour series has to make some tough cuts for the sake of time.
After all, the focus is on the relationship between the brothers, and Ruffalo is truly remarkable here. Just watching this guy walk down a hallway and smoke a cigarette is a treat. He should clear space on his mantle because this is the very definition of an Emmy-worthy performance, especially given his dual turn as Dominick and Thomas, twins born just six minutes apart, but in two different years. Ruffalo spent 15 weeks filming Dominick’s scenes before taking a 5-week break to gain for 30 pounds to play Thomas, and the transformation is startling. It’s not just the physical difference between the characters, it’s the way Ruffalo carries himself as each brother, his confidence and body language. Ruffalo has always had excellent range as a performer and when this series asks him to flex muscles on opposite sides of the acting spectrum, he rises to the challenge.
Besides Ruffalo, the other standout here is Rosie O’Donnell as Thomas’ social worker. O’Donnell’s own forceful personality does justice to Lisa’s take-no-shit attitude, and the actress seems destined for some kind of supporting Emmy nod. I was also very impressed with Philip Ettinger, the 35-year-old actor who plays college-aged Dominick and Thomas. I knew Ruffalo would be able to pull off the dual performance, but Ettinger is a pleasant surprise. Donnie and Rocco Masihi play the Birdseys at eight years old, and I teared up when Rocco’s lower lip began to quivers following a particularly traumatic episode for Thomas aboard a school bus. I also enjoyed Procaccino’s natural yet flavorful performance as the twins’ stepfather, and Michael Greyeyes, who imbues janitor Ralph Drinkwater with a hardened exterior that masks his deep sense of compassion, which I promise makes sense by the end of the series.
I watched I Know This Much Is True dreading one aspect of this review until the very final frame before the end credits addressed it, as if giving me silent permission to talk about this, letting me know it’s okay. The final frame is a dedication card to Cianfrance’s late sister, Megan Cianfrance McGinnis, and to Ruffalo’s brother, Scott Ruffalo. Now, in this line of work, sometimes you know personal things about a performer. And I could not watch this series without thinking about Ruffalo’s brother, Scott Ruffalo, who was murdered in 2008. He is one of just eight people to be killed in Beverly Hills in the past 12 years, and his murder remains unsolved to this day. It was a terrible tragedy, and I can’t imagine the loss that Ruffalo felt in the wake of his death. When I was beating the shit out of my brothers as a kid, or they were teaming up to beat the shit out of me, I would always laugh when my mother would say that they would end up being my best friends in life when I was older. As usual, Mom was right. There’s something incredibly powerful about the relationship between brothers that gets me every time, and the fact is that Ruffalo’s own tragic history lends extra weight to his performance, which feels as if Mark is trying to save his own brother. I suspect that Scott’s memory served as the motor that drove Mark’s performance, but even if it didn’t and I’m reading too much into it, this remains a touching tribute nonetheless.
Cianfrance has a gift for exploring the complex relationships between people, and he deals the cards straight here. There’s also a timeless quality to his work that makes I Know This Much Is True feel like it could’ve been set at any point in the last few decades. I’m a fan of the visual aesthetic favored by Cianfrance and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, as there’s a washed-out quality to the images that makes it feel as if the series itself has been beaten down by life, which isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s hard, and it’s harder for some than others, and those people it’s harder for, well, it’s harder for all of their families, too. But I know this much is true, and so does Dominick — we don’t give up on the people we love. We have to fight for them, and we have to forgive them. Because that’s what love is, and that’s the message of this entire series, which ends on a note of hope. I just hope you’ll stick around long enough to see it.
Grade: 4.5 stars out of 5
I Know This Much Is True debuts Sunday, May 10, on HBO at 9/8c.