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I Know This Much Is True can be overwhelming with its trauma, but its compelling performances make it worth watching

  • The HBO limited series starring Mark Ruffalo as twins, based on Wally Lamb's 1998 novel and directed by Derek Cianfrance, is mired in sadness, says Ines Bellina. "The narrative is relentless when it comes to its misery, and the visual choices only double down on the perpetual feeling of gloom. Cianfrance, who wrote and directed all six episodes, is an expert at setting a sorrowful mood, and he doesn’t hold back just because his medium is now the small screen," says Bellina. "We are in a Connecticut that is perpetually on the verge of rain; the color palette is gray, blueish gray, and off-gray. The camera is in love with claustrophobic close-ups of actors’ faces, just to make sure we can never catch our breath or even get a visual rest. There is something subtly subversive about creating a drama that goes against what so many viewers want. This is not a show to be binge-watched, unless you really have a hankering to wallow, and there are no cliffhangers to lure back viewers each week. On the other hand, I Know This Much Is True may not be an enjoyable watch, but it still manages to be an arresting one, thanks to the stellar performances of an impeccable cast. It’s a bit of an industry cliché to view the role with the most demanding physical transformations as awards bait, and Ruffalo’s turn as Thomas is definitely noteworthy. Still, it’s his performance as Dominick, and his ability to go from open wound to pent-up rage and back, that ends up being more mesmerizing...It’s the caliber of these performances that tilt I Know This Much Is True to the category of prestige television, considering how it could have very easily teetered into a Lifetime tearjerker."


    • I Know This Much is True lands at utterly the wrong time: "The six hours are plagued with unrelenting despair," says Amy Amatangelo. "There is death, rape, self-harm, and heartbreak beyond measure. Dominick suffers more than any one man should. He thinks he is cursed and I’m inclined to believe him. The result is an incredibly well-acted series that is a completely slog to watch. The world is so stressful and sad right now. Do we need to watch a show that is even more stressful and more sad? Even if everything was sunshine and roses, would we want to watch something this consistently depressing?"
    • I Know This Much is True is for those who enjoy watching unrelenting sadness with great acting: "The sheer number of tragic things that happen to Dominick, Thomas, and their loved ones is at first bracing, then numbing, and eventually achieves self-parody," says Alan Sepinwall. "There’s a scene where contractor Dominick is painting a customer’s home and two awful events unfold in rapid succession, and all I could do was laugh. I didn’t feel good about it, but that’s how it felt. The whole thing reminds me of a conversation I once had with my mom, after she saw a critically-acclaimed film with an all-star cast, which I hadn’t gotten around to yet because it sounded depressing. I asked her how it was. She paused for a very long time, searched for something nice to say, and finally said, 'There was a lot of acting in it. It was… it was mostly about acting.'"
    • Director Derek Cianfrance captures all of Ruffalo's fragility and pent-up rage: "The two Ruffaloes have a sweet and sad chemistry, each seeming ever on the brink of self-destruction," says Daniel Fienberg. "The technology pairing the brothers is fairly seamless, though it's interesting that the tightness of Cianfrance's framing accentuates the individual performances and not the stunt of their interaction. Dom is the more dynamic brother, though Ruffalo's quieter, more monosyllabic turn as Thomas arguably does more heavy lifting."
    • The HBO limited series is a soul-crushing drama: "I Know This Much Is True is one of the most harrowing television series I’ve ever seen, and I say that as someone appreciative of Cianfrance’s tragic big screen stories (including another significant, painful-in-retrospect bus scene) and as someone who adores The Leftovers' most heartbreaking moments enough to revisit them regularly," says Ben Travers. "The first episode of I Know This Much Is True frontloads much of the anguish felt and reflected in this six-episode family drama, and even though it’s not wholly representative of the beauty to come, the series’ dour tone can overshadow its remarkable filmmaking, exacting performances, and poignant personal discoveries."
    • I Know This Much Is True is a lot to take in: "The new HBO mini-series I Know This Much Is True takes a character and puts him through a wringer that is so unforgiving, you’d expect it to flatten him completely, to squeeze out everything but the allegory of suffering," says Mike Hale. "That it doesn’t — that there’s enough juice in him to keep you moderately interested for most of the six-hour-plus story — is almost entirely thanks to the man playing him, Mark Ruffalo. It’s hard to imagine anyone else who could find this much life in the show’s modern-day Job."
    • How Ruffalo ended up doing a TV series for the first time in two decades: "My wife is an avid show watcher," he says. "She turned me on to it. I was jealous that actors were getting to really dig into characters. But there’s a continuity in having one director and one writer, which I insisted on from the very beginning."
    • Derek Cianfrance used facial motion technology and actor Gabe Fazio to help Ruffalo pull double duty playing twins: “When he was Thomas, he was so fragile that I had to approach him with kid gloves,” says Cianfrance. “It was like working with two different people. That takes so much skill and commitment.” To play Thomas, Ruffalo took a six-week break to put on about 30 pounds. “The crew gasped on Mark’s first day back on set,” says Cianfrance. “Your physical body can really effect your internal self. Mark came back as a completely different person.”
    • Why Ruffalo needed an actor to play opposite himself filling in the other twin role: "What was most important was that there were these two different characters that were relating to each other, that had chemistry together, that were listening to each other," says Ruffalo. "That had a feeling of this other kind of communication happening that wasn’t just spoken word but feelings and moods and an understanding of a lifetime together and thinking the same things that twins do. We brought on this great actor, Gabe Fazio, who’s a friend of Derek’s. He created a Thomas, he put on 30 pounds. And he played Dominick. And that was probably one of the most essential things and why it worked as well as it does and why it really does feel like two different, breathing, emotionally complex people that are trying to get by the best they can. And, oddly, they have chemistry together. It works between the two of them."

    TOPICS: I Know This Much Is True, HBO, Derek Cianfrance, Gabe Fazio, Mark Ruffalo, Wally Lamb

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