❉ Nick Clement on Derek Cianfrance’s exceptional HBO drama.
“I Know This Much Is True is a goldmine, especially for students of cinema, and for those who have become taken with Cianfrance’s signature, rough and tumble style”
Nothing I have seen in the calendar year of 2020, either crafted for the theatrical experience or for episodic television, has matched the raw emotional power of Derek Cianfrance’s uncommonly absorbing adaptation of Wally Lamb’s novel, I Know This Much Is True. For six consecutive weeks, Cianfrance, along with his estimable crew, and anchored on the immense shoulders of Mark Ruffalo in dual performances for the ages, put on a veritable clinic of long-form storytelling, doling out both massive and small details in nearly every sequence, and showcasing a bleak tapestry of deteriorating lives in a broken-down section of Connecticut (looks a lot like the surrounding areas of Norwich).
Ruffalo portrays twin brothers, one named Thomas, who is mentally unstable to the extreme, while the other, Dominick, is forced to use every last ounce of patience and understanding when it comes to his brother’s issues. And when something absolutely horrifying happens in a very-public-setting, this visceral moment sets off a chain of events that everyone knows will never have a happy ending. Some viewers will find the material to be almost toxic in its level of thematic unpleasantness, but I have no doubt the various lives being explored in this program have most certainly been lived in the real world.
Watching Ruffalo’s performance as Dominique is akin to watching the metamorphosis process of a butterfly, and because of the intense physical demands that were placed on him (rapidly gaining close to 20 lbs during a three week break from filming), the way he convincingly portrayed two very different people who were born into the Earth at the same moment is a master-class in formal precision and actorly technique. There’s also a sense of sadness that can be seen in the creases of his expressive face, when playing both of the brothers, and when things get very intense with Thomas being placed into a psychiatric hospital, the explosive rage that can be felt through Dominick is a striking counterbalance to Thomas’ quietly crumbling psyche.
A roster of incredible actors in distinctive supporting roles are also on offer, including a fantastic Rosie O’Donnell (doing so much in only a few scenes), Imogene Poots, Melissa Leo, John Procaccino (superb), and the brilliant and versatile Kathryn Hahn. Ruffalo’s stand-in, Gabe Fazio, must certainly be credited for invaluably contributing to the overall seamless quality in every instance where Ruffalo is interacting with himself. The time-bending narrative never stops churning with incident, and just you wait for the flashback episodes where much is learned about a dark family history – I’ve never seen anything that carried this specific and distinct tone.
On an aesthetic level, I Know This Much Is True is a goldmine, especially for students of cinema, and for those who have become taken with Cianfrance’s signature, rough and tumble style, seen in works such as the bruising relationship drama Blue Valentine, and the sprawling crime epic, The Place Beyond the Pines. Working with a fleet of amazing editors, including Jim Helton, Ron Patane, Malcolm Jamieson, Dean Palisch, and Nico Leunen, this series contains some of the most judicious edits I’ve noticed in recent years, and in more than a few instances, I was left-slack jawed by how wonderfully in sync all of the technical elements felt.
Harold Budd’s appropriately melancholy score also finds the time to hit some unexpected moments of sonic uplift, while cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes got up close and personal with camera placement, resting for almost uncomfortable amounts of time on people’s faces; the use of close-up and medium close-up in this project is astounding when fully contemplated. I’m in complete awe with this stunning achievement, and while I’m sad that it’s over, I’m oddly relieved that the story has concluded. All six, utterly masterful episodes are currently streaming across various HBO streaming platforms. If this doesn’t win all available awards, then I absolutely give up as a lover of filmed entertainment.
❉ I Know This Much is True premiered on HBO in the United States on Sunday, May 10; and was screened in the UK from Monday, May 11 on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott.