I Know This Much Is True review: Mark Ruffalo dazzles as twins in HBO miniseries less than the sum of his two parts
I Know This Much is True, an adaptation of Wally Lamb's 1998 bestseller is essentially a classical Greek tragedy in the clothing of a wannabe Great American Novel.
Misery, thy name is Mark Ruffalo. It's “buy one, get one free” on Mark Ruffalos in HBO's I Know This Much Is True, and you sure get twice the misery for the price of one. Putting a tragic spin on guilt, loss and remembrance of things past, the new drama from Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) is a family saga centred on the excruciatingly unpleasant lives of identical twin brothers, Dominick and Thomas Birdsey (both played by Ruffalo).
The six-part adaptation of Wally Lamb's 1998 bestseller is essentially a classical Greek tragedy in the clothing of a wannabe Great American Novel, running its characters through an endless tide of misfortunes before the gut-wrenching catharsis. It’s Sophocles + John Steinbeck, times 2 miserable. Though it doesn't really help us make peace with our traumas, it does forcefully put our more trivial worries in perspective.
Sample its opening scene for starters: It is 1990 and we meet Thomas, a paranoid schizophrenic, in a public library, muttering some biblical passage before he slices off his right hand in a protest against the (then) ongoing Gulf War. He declares it a sacrifice demanded by God to "atone for America's sins." Deemed a danger to himself and others, he is sent to a prison for the criminally insane. We follow the point of view of his brother Dominick (a divorced man still grieving over the death of their mother and his own infant daughter), who kickstarts a losing battle to set him free. Prioritising the care of his brother over his own, he puts himself through a wringer of constant misfortune and misery in the process.
Because all the odds are stacked against Dominick and Thomas: the American economy, the prison system, its mental health care services and all its institutional problems. With these relentless miseries, Cianfrance piles on one emotional gut punch after another, but by doing so, he weakens our responses to the more poignant moments at the end. By then, we're simply too tired to handle any more. Moreover, Cianfrance's partiality to close-ups brings us into an uncomfortable proximity with the Birdseys' world, up close in their troubled and intimate thoughts. They're, of course, used less for their narrative functions, more for transcribing the characters' emotions with immediacy.
Similar to the narrative structure of Blue Valentine, Cianfrance feeds us all the necessary information we need to know about the characters' past to offer context to their current circumstances. In parallel to the main storyline, unfolds the Birdsey brothers' troubled childhood and youth in flashbacks spanning decades as the US jumps from one war to another, from Korea to Vietnam before the Gulf. A lot of these events are elaborately recounted with Dominick's voice-over narration; often, they go on for so long it begins to sound like Ruffalo is reading an audiobook. We learn the timid and sensitive Thomas was frequently bullied by their abusive stepfather (John Procaccino), a staunch proponent of tough love; meanwhile, their mother (Melissa Leo) kept the identity of their real father a mystery (and it remains a mystery until the last episode). Thomas also struggled in college, and Dominick grew more resentful as his brother's anxieties began to spill over into virtually all aspects of his life.
Just when Dominick starts to look forward to some semblance of a normal life as an adult, married to his college sweetheart Dessa (Kathryn Hahn, with Aisling Franciosi playing the younger version), he loses his baby daughter in a sudden, unexplained death (SIDS). Soon, his mother too loses her battle with cancer, but before her death, she leaves him the unpublished autobiography of his Sicilian grandfather. On reading it, he learns the painful baggage he is carrying from one generation to another.
Dominick wants to do right by his brother, but his love for him is tied to his feelings of shame, guilt and resentment. This manifests into an unhealthy co-dependency pattern where both end up tormenting each other, so much so that Dominick would rather believe his family is cursed, than come to terms with his own self-destructive impulses. To watch Ruffalo not only embody the two brothers in the same frame (thanks to some serviceable digital effects) but explore the ambiguous dynamics between them — their love, fears and dependencies — is to witness the union of the writer's text, the director’s vision and what can only be called the “magic of acting.” It is hard to muster much sympathy for the characters he is playing. To put it bluntly, they're insufferable. But that's what makes it a realistic depiction of mental illness, one that favours vulnerability over sentimentality.
Providing much needed comic respite from all the misery is Rob Huebel as Dominick’s trusty friend Leo, who is always well-quipped to draw out the occasional smile on your face. Rosie O'Donnell as the no-nonsense social worker Lisa Sheffer, Archie Panjabi as the calm, collected psychiatrist Dr. Patel, Imogen Poots as the unstable girlfriend Joy Hanks, and Juliette Lewis as the unstable translator Nedra Frank make up a delightfully depressing supporting cast, the oil that makes the Mark Ruffalo machine work.
I Know This Much Is True is not an easy watch, by any conceivable definition of that word. It is a bloated Lifetime movie that will likely leave you emotionally exhausted. We know this much is true: It is far too depressing to recommend during lockdown, and even if you're piqued, we'd advise you not to binge the whole thing in one go.
I Know This Much Is True premieres on HBO on 10 May, with new episodes rolling out every Sunday for the next five weeks. In India, it will be available for streaming the following Mondays on Disney+ Hotstar.
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