WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
When Thomas, a paranoid schizophrenic cuts off his own hand in the middle of a public library, it's up to his identical twin brother, Dominick, to once again pick up the pieces. Dominick himself has plenty of his own issues to deal with but with their mother long dead and their stepfather a truly terrible source of support, it is up to him to catch his mentally ill brother every time he falls. This incident, however, truly puts their fraught brotherly bond to the test as the state decides that Thomas is a danger to himself and others and has him committed to a maximum-security mental asylum. It is based on the novel of the same name by Wally Lamb.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Regardless of whether or not I Know This Much Is True is any good, it is really difficult to recommend something this unremittingly miserable in the current climate. Even without Covid-19 and the general doom and gloom of the world at the moment, something as abundantly full of misery, suffering and despair as this is hard to recommend.
I can, kind of, stop the review right here, but for two things: I still haven't really tackled the question of whether it's worth persevering through the depression to get to a quality show at the centre, and many people find that depressing fiction actually counteracts the effects of hard times rather than enforcing them. I'm not one such person when it comes to film or any other form of storytelling, but I can relate to the "misery loves company" approach when it comes to music. So it's hardly completely beyond my comprehension that someone might actually find I Know This Much Is True to be a real balm for the real-world strife of 2020.
For the sake of this review, I have watched the first two hour-long episodes, and the third (of six) dropped on Showmax just a couple of days ago.
Cards on the table. If I did not have to review the series, I don't think I would have lasted five minutes into the first episode. Imagine my surprise, then, when after suffering through two hours of this dour, difficult, misery porn, I haven't entirely written it off.
In some (less) dark and distant time, I may well find my way back to finish the miniseries. I wouldn't hold my breath, mind you. I've read up a bit on what comes next in both the miniseries and the novel and let's just say, it doesn't get a whole lot cheerier. It's not impossible, though, and that's saying something.
Why? Well, because however much I didn't exactly have a grand old time watching these first two episodes, I can't deny that as a character-based drama, it actually has quite a lot going for it. Not enough to wholeheartedly recommend the show, but enough to at least admire it – or certain parts of it, anyway.
Derek Cianfrance, who directs and writes/co-writes all six episodes, rose to fame with miserabilist romantic-drama, Blue Valentine. So if you've seen that film, you kind of know what you're getting with this – only three times as long and about 12 times as depressing. Still, taking a step back and looking at it with some objectivity, it's impossible to deny how impressive Blue Valentine is purely as a piece of cinema and Cianfrance brings all of that technical skill to bear on this, what may well be his most ambitious project yet.
I Know This Much Is True is undeniably very handsomely put together with evocative cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes, assured direction and some top-notch performances from an insanely good cast. Mark Ruffalo, in particular, is simply stunning in the lead roles of the twin brothers, delivering what may just be the best performance of his career, no doubt spurning the whole cavalcade of major "character actors" such as Imogen Poots, Melissa Leo, Kathryn Hahn and Juliette Lewis (in truly unhinged form) to turn in some stellar, memorable work of their own in sometimes fairly small roles. There's also some real psychological depth to the characters and, though it's far too caustic to lighten the proceedings, the show does at least show signs of having a sense of humour.
There's real quality to be found here, basically, and some genuinely interesting character work to give some much-needed drive to an otherwise very slow series. Is this enough to justify the misery? Honestly, no. Not even close.
The problem isn't simply that the relentless bleakness makes the show a difficult watch – though, boy, does it – but that it undermines so much of what works about I Know This Much Is True. Even with that crucial sense of humour in place and with Juliette Lewis showing up to inject some bonkers energy into the proceedings (and she's only in two episodes of the whole series), the show is ultimately drearily monochromatic – both aesthetically and, more problematically, tonally. Forget the grizzly opening of poor Thomas cutting off his own hand, the perfect encapsulation of the overall feeling of the series is Ruffalo as Dominick's monotonous, depressed narration that pops up every now and again, partly to give us a look into Dominick's mind but mostly, to ensure that even the more neutral scenes are never less than mind-numbingly depressing.
And that's really the rub. This is, in no uncertain terms, pure, unadulterated misery porn of the most exploitative kind. I Know This Much Is True takes the basic philosophy of great comedy – why settle for one laugh a minute when you can have three laughs a minute – and tries to apply that to being depressed out of your mind. The flaws in this strategy are clear. If even comedy can wear out its audience with just too many jokes, just how long do you think it would take tragedy to do the same and to exponentially worse effect? About 15 minutes, as it turns out.
Already within the first act of the first episode of this six-episode mini, the amount of misery ladled on top of misery starts to take on such mountainous proportions that it would be funny if it weren't all so unbelievably dreary. And the sad truth is that this might be why I was able to tolerate two whole episodes of something this remorselessly depressing: it's so excessively downbeat that it quickly becomes numbing. Where there should be well-earned tears and a dose of good old, healthy melancholia, there is only senseless depression.
And I know this much is true (booyah!): There is plenty of value in sadness, but there is absolutely none in depression. If only someone had told the creators of I Know This Much Is True this...
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: