Series Review

Mark Ruffalo stuns in complex drama, 'I Know This Much is True'

19 July 2020 - 00:01 By
Mark Ruffalo as Dominick Birdsey and Imogen Poot as Joy Hanks in 'I Know This Much is True'.
Mark Ruffalo as Dominick Birdsey and Imogen Poot as Joy Hanks in 'I Know This Much is True'.
Image: Supplied

If Covid-19 is getting you down, Derek Cianfrance's six-part miniseries I Know This Much is True is just what you need to make you realise that life could be so much worse. Based on Wally Lamb's 1998 epic misery tome, an Oprah Book Club favourite, the six-part HBO miniseries is an unrelentingly grim, tragic and emotionally brutal saga of the tribulations of the Birdsey twins.

It's told through the voice of Dominick — beaten down by decades of fraternal loyalty to his troubled paranoid schizophrenic brother Thomas. Both of them are haunted by the scars of their unhappy childhood — raised by their dedicated, sad mother (Melissa Leo) and their angry, exasperated stepfather Ray (John Procaccino) in a miserable household, tormented by the ghosts of a story involving their Italian immigrant grandfather. We'll learn more of this as the series progresses.

When we meet the twins, Thomas is in a care facility. His brother visits on weekends and takes him out for tense meals at the local diner. There, he expounds on one of his many paranoid conspiracy theories while his brother sits quietly watching and waiting for things to get predictably out of hand. It's the early 1990s and president George H Bush has just launched the invasion of Iraq in the First Gulf War.

It's a moment Thomas sees through the haze of a complicated, biblically inspired mental web as signalling the apocalypse.

Dominick has his own problems. His wife (Kathryn Hahn) has left him after the trauma of a lost child; his girlfriend (Imogen Poots) is trying her best to tiptoe around the boiling rage that lurks behind his already miserable facade, and his life seems to have no purpose other than ensuring that his brother doesn't act out and bring chaos raining down on everyone around him.

When Thomas walks into a library and, in an unhinged moment of revelation, decides to sacrifice his arm to God in an effort to stop the war, hacking it off with a knife and refusing his doctor's offer of reattachment of the sacrificial offering, what was a difficult set of circumstances becomes even more unbearable.

Dominick's anguish and stubborn fidelity to his brother threaten the few good things he has left in his life. A host of well-meaning but perplexed characters are drawn into the plot, including tough-talking social worker Lisa Sheffer (Rosie O'Donnell) and straight-talking psychologist Dr Patel (Archie Panjabi) who, in spite of their best efforts, can't break down the walls of emotional defence Dominick's built up against the world around him.

There will be some redemption for Dominick, but at what cost? Who will be left standing with him by the end of this saga of two brothers pierced by the increasingly brutal arrows of outrageous fortune?

WATCH | 'I Know This Much Is True' trailer.

Cianfrance has been here before in The Place Beyond the Pines, his 2012 drama about the sins of fathers, and with his breakout 2010 film Blue Valentine, which demonstrated his singular ability to examine human relations with all their messy, contradictory hard truths.

It's not an easy story to deal with and readers of Lamb's book will know what's coming. Yet I Know This Much is True succeeds in ringing true to human experience, even if that experience is unimaginably painful and heavy, cloaked in a claustrophobic darkness that sometimes seems too hard to bear for both its characters and the audience. That's mostly thanks to Mark Ruffalo, who plays the adult Birdsey twins.

He gives a career-best performance in which the individual tics and anxieties of the brothers are clearly differentiated. Ruffalo gives them the necessary quiet moments needed to allow them to be fully realised human beings rather than caricatures. It's no small feat and easily one of the greatest portrayals of twins on screen ever.

Cianfrance makes sure that Ruffalo is given the space he needs to fully work towards producing a real pair of smouldering performances that offer a true-to-life version of Bruce Banner and The Hulk that needs no special effects to make us believe.

I Know This Much is True is ultimately a complex and timeless story that harks back to Jacob and Esau with a chunk of the book of Job thrown in for good measure. In spite of its oppressive cycles, the show maintains a belief in the possibilities of redemption, forgiveness and some sort of optimism that's entrenched in all of us as human beings, struggling against the inequities of a world spinning beyond our control. Things could be so much worse but they will ultimately get better, if you hang on and take it for a lifetime.

• 'I Know This Much is True' is available on Showmax with new episodes weekly.


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