HBO is back with another show to make people sad. If the coronavirus and the recent issues concerning racial inequality from law enforcement weren’t enough to make you feel sad about what’s going on in the world, then this should do the trick. I Know This Much is True is the latest HBO mini-series that stars Mark Ruffalo as a man named Dominick and his twin brother Thomas as they struggle to make a life together as a family in Three Rivers, Connecticut in 1990. It becomes such a struggle that it takes a toll on Dominick in devastating ways. Not only does he have that but there’s also an ex-wife who comes back into his life forcing him to face some demons, a tumultuous relationship with his new girlfriend and father, and a mission to translate his maternal great-grandfather’s diary entries with some roadblocks set up by the eccentric woman he’s hired to translate it. So like most HBO shows, a barrel of laughs.
Thomas is a paranoid schizophrenic who cut off his arm as part of a sacrifice to God and is now transferred from one decent mental hospital to a more negligible and dangerous one after his recent action. Dominick is a temperamental man who’s willing to do everything for his brother including getting him released from the new hospital and back in his care. When Thomas is transferred to the new mental hospital, Dominick is filled with anger and frustration towards a system that is too infallible to defeat. I really started to feel for them as they only had each other to depend on. They’re two men who are stuck in this situation they didn’t choose to be in. I can relate to that as I don’t have that many people to rely on and the fact that they even touch on the fact that Dominick and Thomas’s grandfather came to this country with nothing and didn’t leave a large legacy other than a history of severe mental illness can indirectly make one feel isolated.
This series understands how having an inner circle mostly consisting of your family forces you to be independent even in life’s most inconvenient and difficult moments. It simply wasn’t a choice other than deciding to come to America, but sometimes it’s hard to accept support or help when you need it. When you come to this country with nothing, it’s hard to make it on your own as my mom has told me on numerous occasions. She eventually made it work but what about the generations after her? I worry all the time about what’s going to happen to me when she’s gone. Am I going to have anything to show for it? That scares the shit out of me, but my family’s a lot less shitty than Dominick and Thomas’. I was fortunate enough to not have things hinder my forward momentum in life. Still, life is scary and I still don’t know what I’m going to do as I’m scared for the future. This show is the worst “What if?” for that specific concern that I have. Dominick and Thomas’s family’s background as immigrants isn’t the most important thing of the show, but it’s something that’s stuck with me because the interconnectedness of the past and the present that writer/director Derek Cianfrance is trying to show was sticking with me in a way even when it’s not the main focus. But more on the Dominick and Thomas side in terms of how it was affecting them rather than the actual story of the grandfather. It’s also a great sign if you don’t identify with the grandfather’s story as it eschews the usual inspirational bent and goes for a more personally twisted and disturbing version of the immigrant experience.
The fact that Dominick has a lot on his plate doesn’t help matters and adds to the suspense of what’s going to happen to or even Dominick if things continue to worsen. Ruffalo’s great as both brothers, providing a lot of unique and distinctive personality traits for each brother. The show mostly focuses on Dominick as he tries to get his brother out and the hurdles he has to go through. You feel his anger and frustration throughout. I can see why people see him as just an asshole but there’s just so much there that worries him and if he doesn’t worry, who else will? As an easily overwhelmed person, the way Dominick was feeling hit too close to home. He has a weight that he’s forced himself to carry and the way he looks uncomfortable as a result perfectly illustrates how all this is affecting him. You want things to get better and they don’t. It just makes you feel even worse for Dominick. Everything that comes out of him is enough to break your heart. Thomas doesn’t appear as much in the series, but the way he comes off from the beginning is enough to understand what he’s going through. This is someone who’s going through a lot of suffering and you keep wanting him to be okay considering everything he’s being forced to go through.
Derek Cianfrance genuinely cares for his characters and he finds a way to make you feel for these characters. This show will make you think about how the lack of proper treatment for mental illness can result in a lot of ordeals for not just the person suffering but for those who love and care for them. People like Thomas could get help but many factors served as barriers as a way to cut corners and people like Thomas tend to be overlooked. How Cianfrance treats all this is incredibly sincere and genuine. Even at their worst, he finds a way to sympathize with them. It might be heavy to watch but the supporting cast around to lend a helping hand or to be a decent human being helped to bring some humanity and kindness to the production. Even Ruffalo manages to find some humanity inside Dominick as we see him with Thomas and how much he’s fighting for him. Kathryn Hahn and Rob Huebel are great as Dominick’s wife and actor/car salesman friend, respectively. They make for a nice support system for Dominick. Rosie O’Donnell is also fantastic as Thomas’ new social worker attempting to help the two brothers.
Like the best HBO shows, this is an impressively well-made production. Every episode mostly flows well from one to the next. Some of the stuff with Imogen Poots as Dominick’s new girlfriend felt superfluous and kind of made the flow of the show feel weird. She’s really good, but unfortunately doesn’t get a whole lot to do. Otherwise, this is tight in all the right ways. Its tone is pretty consistent in its sadness. Yet there are moments of levity here and there. By the end, it does ease up on the sadness as new challenges are presented to our lead characters. The love between the two characters is enough to carry viewers through the overall dark tone that looms over its 6 episodes. If it sounds like it’s going to be a heavy trip then yeah, pretty much. Throughout it remains a rough yet enriching drama with strong dual performances from Ruffalo and Cianfrance’s sincere touch to such heavy material. We’re always in need of another humanist filmmaker these days and Cianfrance is shaping up to be one of our finest in that regard with the incredible work he does here.
I am giving I Know This Much Is True a 4 out of 5 Hairpieces!