Derek Cianfrance Tells a Powerful Tale of Family Secrets in HBO’s ‘I Know This Much Is True’

Art has the power to capture not only the beauty of life but its sorrows and haunted wounds. Films and TV shows that focus on the more painful aspects of existence have their own particular kind of power. They are not meant to engage in a dialogue of understanding. “I Know This Much is True,” an HBO limited series of sprawling emotional depth, is a canvas of injured lives. Director Derek Cianfrance, adapting a bestselling novel by Wally Lamb, reaches literary heights with this opus. 

Into a public library in Three Rivers, Connecticut walks a perturbed Thomas Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo) who then carries out a shocking act of self-mutilation. Thomas is a diagnosed schizophrenic and his action garners national attention. The person who has to bear the bigger burden of this whole episode is Thomas’s twin brother, Dominick (Ruffalo). A divorcee and house painter, Dominick feels Thomas like a weight around his neck, which compounds frustrations over losing his wife Dessa (Kathryn Hahn). As he deals with Thomas’s eventual incarceration and then institutionalization, Dominick is handed a manuscript left behind by their mother, who never revealed to the brothers the true identity of their biological father. It is a text in Italian detailing the migration of their grandfather Domenico (Marcello Fonte) from Italy to America in the early 1900s. Dominick hires a translator, Nedra Frank (Juliette Lewis) to translate the text.  The situation with Thomas grows dire however and Dominick feels trapped in a void, as if the entire family were somehow eternally cursed. 

“I Know This Much is True” fully uses the medium of episodic TV to give its story shape and time. The original Lamb novel is one of those hefty reads of over 900 pages, but Cianfrance achieves something quite beautiful with his adaption. The limited series has the breadth and scope of a literary work, but its texture and tone is pure cinema. Cianfrance and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes shoot in 35mm, giving every chapter a stark richness. Individual moments, like Dominick in contemplation next to a gorging waterfall, have a dreamlike resonance as if from another time. This could almost be a ‘70s film by John Cassavetes or like “Five Easy Pieces.” Cianfrance directs like a filmmaker without constraints, even touching on a bit of surrealism with a hospital hallucination that has the real, authentic feeling of the subconscious at work.

Along with its aesthetic, what makes “I Know This Much is True” truly effective is its human dimension. Cianfrance’s script, like the Lamb novel, is about the human condition itself. Thomas’s opening and shocking act at the public library is not the initiation of a complex plot. It serves as an introduction to the scarred Birdsey home. Cianfrance’s films tend to deal with life as it is, stripped of feel-good romanticism, which in many ways makes it comforting. It is filmmaking that understands how we live. His 2010 “Blue Valentine” looked unflinchingly at a married couple’s bond dissolving under the weight of resentments, bad memories, certain choices and pure human flaws. “I Know This Much is True” never compromises as Dominick despairs, wondering why his family feels devoid of any happiness. The narrative breaks out into several sections. In the present Dominick deals with Thomas’s meltdown, and then Cianfrance takes us into the past where the two brothers (played by Philip Ettinger) go off to college and we begin to see something just isn’t right. Thomas cannot be left alone, he begins to ramble in terrified, paranoid speak, completing homework is impossible. There are no easy answers for mental illness, but Cianfrance is digging deeper into the very roots of families. Once Dominick begins reading his grandfather’s memories the narrative shifts to the 1910s. A proud and ambitious Domenico arrives in the United States, determined to make money and have a wife. He works in a mill and builds a home. Yet the old ways formed by cultural conditioning do not go away, and Domenico takes a young Italian bride practically sold to him whom he essentially rapes. And when his daughter is grown older he forbids her to be friends with a local Native American. Such are the actual roots of the United States, which has always been a melting pot, but a complicated one where cultures, racism, hierarchies and other lasting habits shaped the society. An even more delicate thread weaved in this story is how subtly the founding roots of a family cast a long shadow over all the subsequent descendants, until someone decides to finally make a change.

Because this is a narrative about people and not plot twists (although there are some good ones), the cast must be up to par. Cianfrance has filled every role large and small with superb choices. Juliette Lewis steals every scene she is in as Nedra Frank, who drunkenly visits Dominick and has a hilariously dark meltdown in a fantastic bit of acting. Kathryn Hahn, as Dominick’s ex-wife, has the pain of still caring for a man who she might love despite extremely painful memories from a marriage that was dealt a sudden, terrible blow too early. In a smaller but effective role Rosie O’Donnell plays Lisa Sheffer, a government social worker who tries to give frank advice to Dominick on how to deal with his brother’s case. John Procaccino plays Dominick and Thomas’s stepfather, Ray, who gives a tremendously good and subdued performance in the last episode. For Mark Ruffalo, who also serves as executive producer, this is one of his great roles. He meticulously plays two brothers with different personalities. If he is not nominated come award season it would be a travesty. He must evoke the short-tempered Dominick, who masks his own fears with outbursts, and then the sweet but tortured Thomas. Yes with digital technology we are given the illusion that the twins inhabit the same room, but the acting by Ruffalo is ingenious in how it creates two different men to inhabit that space. It is truly virtuoso work, full of loneliness.

These performances are all refreshing in that the actors are playing real people. These feel like lives that could actually have been lived. Even the happiest family has bad memories. “I Know This Much is True” is about those recollections and their silent poison. If Thomas’s mind is lost in paranoid delusions about CIA plots and body implants, Dominick’s own internal self keeps going back his divorce, to Ray’s homophobic rages, and those years in college when as a young guy going out on his own he selfishly began to push away Thomas. The dialogue sometimes crackles with the kind of honest confessions many us only make in private. Few series or films have that kind of interaction with its audience. 

“I Know This Much is True” might sound like a depressing experience. Cianfrance’s approach is so eloquent and vivid that it never feels that way. Even in its melancholy moments it never feels as if it is wallowing in despair. Its final chapter has much truer closure than in any thriller because it is a strong meditation on how we can confront the less comfortable details of our lives and learn to live on. Sometimes it is best to know the truth because it can lead to genuine freedom. If this were not officially a television limited series, it could easily be called one of the year’s best films.

I Know This Much is True” premieres May 10 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.