HBO review: Mark Ruffalo shows range as an actor as twins in 'I Know This Much is True'

Fred Hawson

Posted at May 30 2020 07:58 AM

Mark Ruffalo plays twins Thomas and Dominick in HBO's 'I Know This Much is True'

Forty-year old house painter Dominick Birdsey had a twin brother Thomas who suffered from schizophrenia. One day, Thomas went into a public library with a big knife and committed a grisly act of biblically-motivated sacrificial self-mutilation. He was arrested and taken into custody in a maximum security prison facility. Despite having to deal with his own problems with stepfather Ray, wife Dessa and baby daughter Angela, Dominick, fulfilling a promise he made to their mother, took it upon himself to take care of Thomas and his best interests.

"I Know This Much is True," an HBO mini-series of 6 episodes, was adapted by writer-director Derek Cianfrance from a best-selling 1998 novel by Wally Lamb. Premiering on HBO Go and HBO last May 11, 2020, the series is only on its third episode. However, you can already see the gritty quality of Cianfrance's storytelling of the disconcerting present events, interspersed with flashbacks from the twins' difficult childhood to their college days growing up together, letting us all in on where their damaged psyches were both coming from.

While gaining wide mainstream recognition as Bruce Banner/Incredible Hulk in the "Avengers" films, Mark Ruffalo was also being nominated for Oscars in films like "Spotlight" (2015), "Foxcatcher" (2014) and "The Kids are Alright" (2010) and for an Emmy for "A Normal Heart" (2014). Here as the Birdsey twins, Ruffalo had to reach deep into his bag of different acting styles for portraying each twin.

Thomas is the showier role of the two because of his labile psychotic state. As Thomas, Ruffalo was not only able to disturb viewers with his irrational actions, but also elicit sympathy with the depth of his vulnerable performance. Dominick may have been the rational twin outwardly, but in actuality, he was fighting a lot of devils internally. His bad temper was also not helping his cause any. This may actually be the more difficult role for Ruffalo because it required both physicality as well as restraint.

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Many of the main female supporting actors had been award-winners and nominees themselves. Melissa Leo (Oscar winner for "The Fighter") played their fragile mother Concettina. Imogen Poots (BAFTA winner for ""The Look of Love") played Dominick's current girlfriend Joy. Against type, comedienne Kathryn Hahn (Emmy nominated for "Transparent") played Dominick's ex-wife Dessa.

True to her other quirky roles, Juliette Lewis (Oscar and Golden Globe nominee for "Cape Fear") played a neurotic Italian translator Nedra. Archie Panjabi (Emmy and Golden Globe nominee for "The Good Wife") played Thomas' new psychiatrist Dr. Patel, who was able to gain deeper insights to the psyches of both brothers. In a serious turn, Rosie O'Donnell (multiple Emmy-winning host and nominee) played firm social worker Lisa Schaeffer.

Movies about twins had always proven to be an acting showcase for the actor who played both twins, from Olivia de Havilland in "Dark Mirror" (1949) and Bette Davis in "Dead Ringer" (1964) to Jeremy Irons in "Dead Ringers" (1989) and Nicolas Cage in "Adaptation" (2002). In "I Know This Much is True," where one twin was the polar opposite of the other, both were suffering distinctly different psychiatric disorders from each other, further multiplying the challenge several fold.

Even in the first three episodes alone, this premise practically allowed lead actor (and co-producer) Mark Ruffalo to display his entire range of dramatic acting skills, courting a Best Actor Emmy for giving his all in a couple of physically and emotionally-draining roles.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."