I Know This Much is True has the bad luck of arriving at a time when the majority of potential viewers are extra stressed and extra depressed. Because of the situation we now find ourselves in, I Know This Much is True is going to seem like an uphill battle for many, simply because it’s so damn bleak. While the Wally Lamb adaptation doesn’t deal with a pandemic, it does focus on mental illness, sexual abuse, parental abuse, sudden infant death syndrome, suicide, and other harrowing subjects. It’s a parade of misery sprawled across six episodes. Despite its disadvantage, I Know This Much is True has plenty to celebrate – most notably star Mark Ruffalo, who does double duty playing a pair of identical twins.
Ruffalo plays Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, brothers who couldn’t be more different. Thomas suffers from schizophrenia and is unable to care for himself. Dominick, beaten down by a lifetime looking after his twin – and some other horrible situations – is bitter and prone to loud outbursts. The saga of the Birdsey brothers begins on a shocking, attention-grabbing note, as Thomas wanders into a public library and proceeds to cut off his own hand as a form of protest against the first Gulf War (the series is set in the early 1990s).
The violent act results in Thomas being pulled from the welcoming care facility he’s spent most of his adult life, and dropped into a cold, sterile state hospital that seems more like a prison. From there, I Know This Much is True jumps back and forth through time, showing the Birdsey brothers as children, and then later as college kids (where they’re both played by Philip Ettinger, doing a great job of embodying both of Ruffalo’s performances).
I Know This Much is True is a curiosity in its storytelling. There’s not really a “plot” here to speak of. Nor is there much of a conflict to overcome. Sure, Dominick wants to get his brother out of the hospital he’s currently in. And he’s also curious to find out who the twins’ father was – their mother (Melissa Leo) kept the man’s identity a secret, and the boys instead grew up with their abusive stepfather Ray (John Procaccino).
But these elements don’t drive the narrative. Instead, writer-director Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines) is more interested in tracking the many miseries that plague the Birdsey boys. Not only does Dominick have to deal with his sick brother, he also has to deal with his failed marriage to Dessa (a phenomenal, soft-spoken Kathryn Hahn) as well as his complicated relationship with Ray. The past haunts Dominick, and as the series unfolds, the tragedies pile up, and it all leaves him wondering: is his family cursed?
Maybe they are. Because the series soon jumps even further back in time, following Dominick and Thomas’ maternal grandfather, an Italian immigrant who is revealed to be a cruel narcissist – and who may have brought a curse upon himself and his generations to come by being such a monster. Or maybe, as Dominick’s therapist (Archie Panjabi) points out, that’s a bunch of bullshit. Maybe there are no curses – just bad hands that some people are dealt.
After a while, the sorrows of I Know This Much is True are almost too much to handle. Adding to the overall tone is the series’ visual palette, which is saturated in cadaverous grays and inky blacks. It seems to always be raining, and even when it’s not, there’s a sense of dampness. Cianfrance shot the series on 35 mm film, and the grain of the film stock adds to the overall oppressive atmosphere.
While the perpetually growing emotional horrors pile up, Ruffalo’s performances keep things anchored. Dominick and Thomas are both incredibly different, personality-wise. Throw in the fact that Ruffalo either packed on some pounds or wore a fat suit to make Thomas the heftier of the two, and it becomes almost impossible to not see the Birdsey brothers are two distinct individuals, not one actor putting in double the work. There are times here where you might find yourself suddenly taken aback to remember that you’re watching one actor, not two.
Ruffalo is backed up by other fine performances. Hahn is the clear MVP after Ruffalo, but Procaccino is also quite strong, managing to make the abusive Ray seem more complex and rounded than just a stock cruel stepfather. Rosie O’Donnell, playing Thomas’ social worker, gives unquestionably the best performance of her entire career. And Rob Huebel gets to provide the closest thing the series has to a sense of humor as Dominick’s best friend Leo, a car salesman and would-be-actor.
But this is Ruffalo’s show. Without his nuanced double performance, the series would likely collapse under the weight of all that sadness. Sure, Cianfrance’s direction would likely still be present, and his hauntingly beautiful imagery might’ve been enough on its own. But thanks to Ruffalo, I Know This Much is True is worth all the melancholy. Mostly.
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