Review by Sean Boelman
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Wally Lamb, filmmaker Derek Cianfrance’s new limited series I Know This Much Is True offers a wonderful showcase for its actors and filmmaker. Often an emotionally painful but also rewarding watch, this may be too bleak for some tastes, though it will certainly appeal to fans of Cianfrance’s other work.
The series follows a man who has lived a life filled with tragedy, culminating in troubles with his schizophrenic identical twin brother in the mental health system. And while the film is set in the ‘90s (Lamb’s book was initially published in 1988, and Cianfrance does not transpose it to a modern setting), it still feels very relevant to modern issues.
The film does struggle with balancing its subplots in a way that is consistently effective. The core storyline exploring the relationship between the two brothers is very compelling, but when the series tries to develop one of them on an individual level, it’s hit or miss. An episode arc exploring the characters’ past, adding in commentary on the Vietnam War draft, is particularly interesting.
On the other end of the spectrum is an arc that runs through the whole series about the protagonist trying to figure out his own identity. This leads to a series of cutaways from the life of his grandfather, and while Cianfrance’s purpose of including these is obvious, they grind the pacing to a halt and are borderline offensive at times.
Mark Ruffalo is as wonderful as expected in his dual role. He brings a lot of compassion to his characters, especially in his portrayal of schizophrenia. It can be easy for actors to go over-the-top when playing characters as difficult as this, but he handles it with a lot of subtlety. He’s truly at his career best here.
Also impressive is the series’s supporting cast. Rosie O’Donnell is a particular standout in her performance as a social worker assigned to the characters’ case. It’s shocking just how good she is and how much emotion she is able to convey with even the smallest of mannerisms. Other highlights include Imogen Poots, Kathryn Hahn, and Rob Huebel.
On a technical level, the film has the same dreamlike quality as Cianfrance’s other work. There are a few sequences throughout the film that go a bit more abstract, and Cianfrance’s unique style is a big part of what makes these portions effective. The soundtrack is absolutely brilliant too, setting the mood of the film quite well.
There are a few things about I Know This Much Is True that don’t quite work, but it is still a very powerful watch. It’s worth your time if only for the performances alone, which will more than likely result in a couple nominations come the Emmys.
I Know This Much Is True debuts on HBO on Sunday, May 10 at 9pm ET/PT.