You could argue Mark Ruffalo deserves Emmy nominations for best actor AND best supporting actor for his rich, layered and powerful performance(s) as twin brothers in the HBO six-part limited dramatic series “I Know This Much Is True,” which is based on the Wally Lamb bestseller that became an Oprah Winfrey Book Club favorite and riveted readers with its heartbreaking and melancholy story of a family cursed by one tragedy after another.
You also could argue this is one of the most relentlessly depressing viewing experiences in recent years — that despite the strong performances and the well-crafted production design, “I Know This Much Is True” virtually wallows in its characters’ misery. Virtually everyone in this generation-spanning story has been deeply scarred and, in some cases, destroyed by horrifying experiences, from a crib death to a physically and verbally abusive spouse to bipolar disorder to self-mutilation to random acts of cruelty and deceit.
“I Know This Much Is True” comes to us with blue-chip credentials, from the source material to showrunner/director Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine,” “The Place Beyond the Pines”) to a cast headed by Ruffalo and featuring fine supporting work from Melissa Leo, Kathryn Hahn and Archie Panjabi, as well as Rosie O’Donnell in a searing dramatic turn reminding us of her talents as an actress. Alas, from the opening moments, with an irritatingly stylish camera move unnecessarily teasing us before a big reveal, through the final scenes, by which time the viewer is more exhausted than enlightened, this is one of the more disappointing misfires of the home viewing year.
With the main story set in the town of Three Rivers, Connecticut, in the early 1990s, Ruffalo plays Dominick, a 40ish, smart, sullen, goatee-wearing house painter, and his twin brother Thomas, who’s clean-shaven, a bit heavier and suffering from severe bipolar disorder. (The technology allowing Ruffalo to appear onscreen with himself is seamless.) In the very first scene of the series, Thomas is at the Three Rivers Public Library, muttering incoherently about the Gulf War, when he takes out a small machete and hacks off his own hand in what he believes is a sacrifice to help bring about the end of the war. From the moment Dominick arrives at the hospital and is horrified not only by Thomas’ self-mutilation but his brother’s manic insistence doctors not try to reattach his hand because he’ll only cut it off again, we can feel the pain coursing through every inch of Dominick’s being. As we learn in flashbacks and through Dominick’s therapy sessions, from the time they were little boys, Dominick has literally been his brother’s keeper.
As if Thomas’ condition wasn’t burden enough, Dominick and his brother suffered horrific verbal and physical abuse at the hands of their stepfather. Dominick’s childhood was marred by emotionally scarring episodes, such as the time his brother got locked in the bathroom of a bus on a school field trip and suffered a panic attack and couldn’t get himself out, and an incident involving a classmate who was suspended after Dominick falsely accused her of stealing — and wound up dead a few days later.
It gets worse. Dominick’s marriage to his college sweetheart Dessa (Kathryn Hahn) fell apart after the crib death of their daughter. Dominick’s mother (Melissa Leo) is dying of breast cancer. And as we learn in a flashback sequence that takes up nearly an entire episode, Dominick’s grandfather was an old-world, old-school Sicilian who treated his wife horribly and believed he and his descendants were cursed by his wife’s “witch” of a sister.
This is by no means a complete list of the parade of miseries unveiled in “I Know This Much Is True,” but you get the idea. When Thomas is held in a maximum security facility, Dominick’s story takes center stage, as Dominick fights tirelessly to get his brother moved to a better facility, but goes about it in the wrong way, as he constantly blows up at the very people trying to help him, including a therapist played by Archie Panjabi and a dedicated, no-nonsense social worker portrayed by Rosie O’Donnell. The character actor John Procaccino is brilliant as the boys’ stepfather, who was a monster when they were young but seems to have evolved over the years and genuinely cares for his grown stepsons. Familywise, all they have is each other.
Even when it’s sunny in Three Rivers, it feels like it’s dark and raining and gloomy. As Dominick spirals into a free-fall of angry outbursts and self-destructive behavior, a loved one says, “You’re going to wind up just like Thomas.” Like so many other moments of revelation in “I Know This Much Is True,” it’s too little, too late.