Another Dark Look At A Dark Book

I Know This Much Is True Review

Ever since the exquisite Chernobyl premiered nearly a year ago, HBO has become a wellspring of some of the most exquisite and darkest literary adaptations from a network that has done more than its share. From the memorable updating of Watchmen (which many hoped would be a regular series) to the quiet darkness of The Outsider to the way too relevant alternate history The Plot Against America HBO has spent much of its post Game of Thrones world looking at some of the darkest parts of humanity.

Now, they look into one of their most ambitious projects (and for HBO, that’s saying a lot); a seven part adaptation of Wally Lamb’s epic novel I Know This Much is True. This is another of those bestsellers that one constantly checks out of the library, but whose sheer size will often throw off all but the devoted reader; I took out of the library multiple times but 900 pages plus seemed too much even for me, along with very little revealed by its jacket. What I have been able to gleam is that this is the story of twin brothers; Dominic and Thomas, born on New Year’s Eve 1949, and New Year’s Day 1950. They know nothing of their father and their mother (Melissa Leo) goes to her grave refusing to reveal any details about him. They are raised by a cruel stepfather, and Tom, from the earliest days on, is schizophrenic to the point where he can barely function. In October of 1990, the precipitating act of the novel occurs when Tom enters a Connecticut library, chops his hand off, and insists that it not be reattached — actions which get him committed to a state hospital utterly unsuited to him. Just reading the early reviews makes you think it will only get worse from here on.

Image for post
Image for post

What makes this series worth watching — at least so far — is the incredible work of Mark Ruffalo as both brothers. Most of the world only knows Ruffalo for his work as Bruce Banner in the Marvel Universe, which is a shame, because much of his work both before and during these productions has revealed him to be one of the greatest character actors working in any field today. Somewhat doughy, awkward looking, and not conventionally handsome, he has this gift for playing characters who never quite seem comfortable in their own skin (which may have been part of the reason he was ideal as Banner). Always lurking beneath the surface of so many of his characters (from the TV movie The Normal Heart and the Oscar winning Spotlight) is a level of outrage lurking below the surface. And that is very clear in his portrayals of both Dominic and Tom. Dom tries to withhold a lot of the time, and it rarely surfacing except through episodes but you can see in both brothers. Much like the work of James Franco in The Deuce, this isn’t simply a gimmick to draw you in or to grab award nominations (though I’m pretty sure Ruffalo will get his share). You can see the level of pain in each one; in Tom, it’s of a life wasted, in Dom, it’s of a life that he just can’t live.

Given the level of the others actors in this series, I have a feeling I’ll stick around for the rest of I Know This Much Is True. Kathryn Hahn, who lays Dom’s ex-wife had a brilliant scene that makes it hard to believe this is the same actress who made me laugh so hard in Mrs. Fletcher just a few months ago. Melissa Leo delivered her usual level of brilliance in just a few short scenes, and I look forward to seeing Archie Panjabi later on. Will it be dark and depressing? Sure seems that way, and given the times we live in, that may not be the biggest draw these days. But if we are driven to search for excellence, I have a feeling we can no more look away from this series than we can the work of its leading man.

My score: 4 stars.

Written by

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store