I Know This Much Is True isn’t a TV show that most people would want to bingewatch, especially during our current situation. HBO‘s upcoming drama series starring Mark Ruffalo is rough stuff, the heaviest of the heavy, and based upon Wally Lamb’s 1998, 900+ page novel (an Oprah Book Club title back in the day) of the same name. There’s nothing at all cheery about the lives led by the identical twins portrayed by Ruffalo, and god only knows that he endured a few lifetimes of (pretend) misery to embody these shattering roles. Yet it’s easy to see why he signed onto this project. Ruffalo not only seized the coveted task of playing twins — done in the past with varying degrees of success by Nic Cage, Tom Hardy, Armie Hammer, Christian Bale, Adam Sandler, and Lindsay Lohan (who’s actually done it twice) — but he sends up a pair of award-worthy achievements. Ruffalo also does so within an astonishing example of storytelling.
In adapting Lamb’s tragic book into six episodes, director Derek Cianfrance comes by the challenge honestly. His Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines are both movies that I admire and appreciate but don’t especially want to watch again. The same goes for I Know This Much Is True, although the grueling plunge did provide the experience of an expansive story and phenomenal performances across the board. Ruffalo’s dual turn obviously takes center stage, and although he’s always been known for possessing true acting chops — far beyond simply Hulking Out for the MCU — he puts himself through the paces here. Part of the challenge was a physical one: after shooting all of his scenes as Dominick, a divorced housepainter, he spent five weeks away from the set and gained 30 pounds before returning to film as Thomas, a paranoid schizophrenic whose illness also holds Dominick in its grips as well.
The story’s an epic one that spans multiple generations and, to a significant degree, explores the idea of inherited (or, at least, passed-on) trauma. It’s a theme that has received other treatments in the past year, including HBO’s Watchmen and Apple TV+’s Defending Jacob (starring Ruffalo’s fellow Avenger, Chris Evans) both putting different spins on the subject. Yet I assure you that there’s been no more visceral recent examination of generational scarring than in I Know This Much Is True. Part of the exploration sources through the mystery identity of the twins’ father, which serves to frame the story and enlist a supporting cast that doesn’t contain a weak link.
Beyond Ruffalo’s domination of the screen, five female supporting players bring their own gravity. In particular, Rosie O’Donnell puts in a rare dramatic performance as a social worker on Thomas’ case. She is so outstanding in the role that it makes me truly wonder if that talk-show path of hers (along with the anger-bear years to follow) wasn’t the wrong detour to take. Elsewhere, Kathryn Hahn makes a multidimensional turn as Dominick’s long-suffering ex-wife, Melissa Leo crushes souls as the twins’ mother, Archie Panjabi is reliably good as a therapist, and Juliette Lewis crashes in as (no surprise here) an offbeat character. She’s the closest thing to resemble sunshine on this series, and again: if you desire comfort viewing, this ain’t it.
Still, this is a fascinating story to watch unfold. Clearly, there’s a massive emotional component involved, but how Ruffalo handled the differences in the twins’ physicalities is notable. Gaining (or losing) a significant amount of weight in a short amount of time certainly isn’t healthy, and it also is jarring in terms of learning how to inhabit a changed body. Ruffalo’s so at-home in both incarnations that he’s striking in those moments where we see him “onscreen” as both twins at the same time. His reactions to and chemistry with himself are all so fluid, it’s practically a masterclass in acting. However, there are a number of story components that make this show a hard sell. It’s stuffed to the brim with shattering events, and it’s almost impossible to accept that two twin brothers can endure so many terrible things in their world. Dominick even makes a comment to that effect toward the end of the series.
Yet it’s not as though this series is unaware of being a bit of a grief parade. The story begins with physical trauma, a self-inflicted one on behalf of Thomas, who does so in a very public way. That lands him in a maximum-security mental institution, and Dominick spends a great deal of the runtime attempting to get him outta there. Throughout the course of six episodes, the story touches upon child abuse, cancer, rape, assault, and racism (that’s not all, but you get the picture). There are glimmers of hope amid all the gloom, but yes, it’s overall bleak stuff. Given what the world’s going through right now, I’d suggest putting this show on your list for when the world gets a little brighter. For sure, it will also be best to parcel out on a weekly basis, just like the HBO scheduling gods are releasing it to the world.
HBO’s ‘I Know This Much Is True’ debuts on Sunday, May 10 at 9:00pm EST.