Derek Cianfrance’s characters live a high-wire life. Everyone is a raw nerve, ready to go off at the slightest provocation. At any moment, a quiet conversation between friends, lovers, family members, or people meeting for the first time can turn tense as the truth pours out. The catharsis of his stories comes from people understanding themselves at long last. From Blue Valentine to The Place Beyond the Pines to his latest, HBO’s miniseries I Know This Much is True, emotional stability is achieved only after considerable struggle. It’s a rough ride for the characters, and the audience as well. Nothing comes easily in Cianfrance’s worlds, and that’s what makes his work rewarding.
I Know This Much is True
RELEASE DATE: May 10, 2020
DIRECTOR: Derek Cianfrance
Derek Cianfrance’s adaptation of Wally Lamb’s acclaimed novel is a sprawling drama centered on twin brothers Dominick and Thomas.
Based on the novel by Wally Lamb, I Know This Much is True is about the story of Dominick Birdsey and his twin brother Thomas (both played by Mark Ruffalo). Dominick has spent his whole life looking after Thomas. It weighs heavily on Dominick, especially as it becomes clear that he can’t really help Thomas in the way he most needs support. Thomas is schizophrenic, a diagnosis that helps explain a lifetime of traumatic moments and tethers him tighter to his brother. For his part, Dominick did what he could, but he just can’t be what Thomas needs him to be. It’s a cosmic kick in the pants, to be so close to someone yet so far from what they need most. That cuts both ways for the Birdsey boys, although Dominick feels those shortcomings more than Thomas can.
The series begins in 1990, with Thomas, as an adult, cutting off his right hand in a public library to atone for the U.S.’s actions in Operation Desert Storm. From there, Thomas goes to the hospital, then a state-run psychiatric ward. Dominick tries in vain to help his brother, but there’s frustratingly little he can do. The story covers three main periods in the lives of Dom and Tom, between their time as elementary-age kids, their college years, and as adults. No matter where we go in time, the one constant for Dom and Tom is trauma. Abusive stepdad, the onset of Tom’s mental health issues, the death of their mother due to cancer. Life hasn’t been easy.
It’s not just that life isn’t easy. Even by the Cianfrance standard, I Know This Much is True heaps a lot of trauma on its characters. This is an anti-binge show. After each episode ends you’ll want a break to reflect and clear your mind before the next hour begins. I wouldn’t blame anyone who tapped out after a couple of episodes due to the thematic weight of the material. After the second episode, part of me wanted to throw in the towel. Who wants to watch something this depressing right now? Emotional deep dives like this are grueling enough in a two-hour movie. Stretched out to six hours, there are points where it feels like the show is just wallowing in the misery of its characters.
But there comes a point where the series takes a turn and the suffering coalesces into something worth committing to. For me, that was the start of episode four during a fight for the college-aged brothers (played by Philip Ettinger). Dominick wants to try living with a new dormmate, an act Thomas sees as traitorous. It’s a raw moment, culminating with Thomas telling him that they’re the same person. Dominick describes Thomas as an anchor weighing him down, while Thomas views Dominick as a beacon of hope. It gets right at the crux of their existence. Ettinger’s performances during these scenes are remarkable.
For Dominick, his whole life has been about watching over Thomas. When Thomas is sentenced to the psychiatric hospital, Dominick finally has the space he wanted, but he doesn’t know what to do with it. Meetings with Thomas’ doctors (Archie Panjabi and Rosie O’Donnell) turn into therapy sessions for Dominick. He’s also finally reached a place where he can’t cast aside his own issues in favor of helping Thomas. And what a mountain of issues Dominic has. He has major emotional wounds from nearly all of his most important relationships, like his girlfriend Joy (Imogen Poots), his ex-wife Dessa (Kathryn Hahn), and his stepfather Ray (John Procaccino).
Then there’s the question that has weighed heaviest over his and Thomas’ entire lives: the identity of the father they never met. But, via a journal left behind by his grandfather, Dominick learns about his family’s past. Late in the run of I Know This Much is True, Dominick says, “You don’t give up on the people you love.” Dominick has spent most of his life believing that everyone around him is a quitter. That’s the position Dominick is most comfortable in. He has suffered nobly while everyone else tapped out when things got too hard. The vulnerability and clarity that arrives when Dominick realizes that he, in fact, is the one people have not given up on is the strongest sentiment in the series.
I Know This Much is True features great performances across the board. Ruffalo is a lock for an Emmy nomination, but Hahn, Ettinger, and O’Donnell also stand out. Cianfrance knows how to get the performances he needs and routinely gets top-shelf work from his casts. He directed and wrote all six episodes (with Anya Epstein cowriting the last two episodes). So all of his strengths and weaknesses are on display, and I don’t think Cianfrance would have it any other way. His work is sprawling, overwhelming, messy, and ambitious. I Know This Much is True isn’t his best work (that’s still The Place Beyond the Pines), but it’s still good—if you don’t mind going through an emotional gauntlet.
I Know This Much is True begins on HBO at 8pm CT on May 10, with new episodes every Sunday.
*First Published: May 10, 2020, 7:46 pm
Eddie Strait is a member of the Austin Film Critic Association. His reviews focus primarily on streaming entertainment, with an emphasis on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other on-demand services.