I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE: The Tragedy of the Americana Experience

Derek Cianfrance returns with a new HBO limited series, based on the book by Wally Lamb. I Know This Much Is True stars Mark Ruffalo as middle-aged Dominick Birdsey, who recounts his troubled relationship with Thomas, his paranoid schizophrenic twin brother (also played by Ruffalo), as he tries to get him released from an asylum. Other stars include Kathryn Hahn, Imogen Poots, and Juliette Lewis, who each leave a definitive stamp in supporting roles.

While each performance serves as a perfect slice to a whole, don’t be fooled, this is definitely a story lead by Ruffalo’s twin leads. Combined with Cianfrance’s ‘addiction’ to this story and the intimacy of the acting, I Know This Much Is True creates a palatable amount of realism in tragedy.

An Actor’s Director

Cianfrance is known as an actor’s director and it shows here stronger than in any of his previous work. Mark Ruffalo solidifies himself as one of the most talented working actors today, with his portrayal of twins Dominick and Thomas being no gimmick. Cianfrance does more work to avoid throwing in Ruffalo vs Ruffalo scenes when unnecessary, and in fact, there’s barely any at all. These moments with the two Italian brothers looking for their father become that much more cathartic.

I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE: The Tragedy of the Americana Experience
source: HBO

While his portrayal of Thomas, a paranoid schizophrenic, is what you’d call the ‘flashier’ role, it is Ruffalo’s turn as the true lead, Dominick, an angry man ready to fight the world over his brother, that takes the cake. Dom could easily slip into being an unlikable character, but he’s dealing with immense stress and a system that doesn’t support those with mental health difficulties, like those his brother continues to suffer. It neatly combines the life of this family into a story that can be distilled and accessed, with their fascinating faces taking up each frame as they try to tackle the American immigrant experience. That’s where this series shines the brightest, as its themes are surprisingly relevant to everything happening in today’s world. Systematic racism, women’s rights, mental health awareness, immigration, and poorly run institutions all serve as major plot points and affections in this piece that naturally touch on each facet of the American human experience, one that plagued immigrants of the 20th century, and plagues many today.

Any Other Way Is Wrong

Though working with actors is Cianfrance’s strength, as everyone on this huge cast list gets their moment/episode to shine, he’s known for the same things some other directors are: cinematography and music, or at least working well with those departments. The show is shot on 35mm film and for a story set wholly in the 20th century, this makes perfect sense. The way cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes exposes his celluloid here is unbelievably original and stylish, using the kind of film grain that haplessly crawls around your screen and brings life to human pores. I couldn’t imagine this story being presented in any other way.

I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE: The Tragedy of the Americana Experience
source: HBO

Unusually, there’s no composer credited on the series and I’m not sure if there was a score at all, but the sound and music here manifest a profound and deep sensitivity to the imagery, finding a connection with each human being in the story and especially the twins as we watch them become the weary, broken down adults of the day. Strong motifs remind us of family resemblances, parallels, and deep senses of loss in past lives, and the bonds between them.

Return To Form(at)

Few modern filmmakers have the emotionally pummeling track record that Derek Cianfrance has. With modern classics such as Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines, the director is well known within the indie film industry, while he’s failed to break into the mainstream stratosphere in the last decade. I Know This Much Is True, in some sense, is surely going to revive Cianfrance’s career. Few directors, very few, can show this much stamina and precise quality over multiple hours of storytelling. His emotional sensibilities have never been more suited than they are here, which must be thanks to Wally Lamb’s original work on the novel that the series is based on.

In addition to the time span and playground of the 20th century, Cianfrance gets to create a beautiful thematic backdrop for the present-day story to play out. Many of his missteps in previous features have mostly been down to his pacing, and script-wise, I don’t see Derek Cianfrance as one of Hollywood’s strongest writers. Films like The Light Between Oceans and The Place Beyond the Pines have suffered from pacing issues despite strong performances and stories. Here, however, HBO provides Derek with six hours of screen-time, combined with weekly breaks, lending the episodic format to a thoughtful and pensive journey that stays with you. My hope is that Cianfrance returns to this format, for I believe he’s found his calling.

Have you seen I Know This Much is True? What’s your favorite Derek Cianfrance film?

I Know This Much Is True is currently streaming on HBO.


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