Mark Ruffalo shines in dual role in locally filmed “I Know This Much Is True”

(Atsushi Nishijima / HBO)

It is actor Mark Ruffalo’s misfortune, in a way, to have attained his broadest fame by portraying a superhero in the world’s most financially successful movie franchise to date, the Avengers series. Like any self-respecting Marvel Universe good guy, Bruce Banner/the Hulk suffers from inner torment, torn between the dark and light sides of his nature.

But in his case, what we see onscreen of the Mr. Hyde side of that equation is primarily a product of CGI. Ruffalo himself really only gets to play the Doctor Jekyll half, who – while quite capable of trading verbal barbs with Tony Stark when necessary – is about as ethically pure as they come. Dr. Banner spends most of his time atoning for the Hulk’s raging excesses by curing destitute people in the Third World, like Mother Teresa with a lower public profile.

Consequently, if Marvel movies are the only ones in which you’ve watched Ruffalo at work, you might be forgiven for not having developed a full appreciation of his thespian talents. Even in lesser-seen vehicles, he tends to get typecast as characters so raffishly charming you want to put them in your pocket and take them home (case in point: 2014’s delightful Begin Again). The guy must be aching by now, if not for villain roles, then ones that force him to stretch – to show what he really can do besides be adorably noble.

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We saw a little bit of that urge manifested in last year’s environmental procedural Dark Waters, in which Ruffalo convincingly channeled the dull, charisma-free personality of a small-town lawyer who doggedly pursues greedy corporate polluters. Perhaps one of the perks of becoming an acknowledged Hollywood star, and occupying that bankable status long enough, is the freedom to shed that star-quality image onscreen when you find a project that calls to you.

The challenge that Ruffalo has most recently taken up, as executive producer as well as double star, is currently being unveiled on HBO: I Know This Much Is True, a miniseries adapted from the 1998 novel of the same name by Wally Lamb and directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines).

It has been speculated that part of the attraction of this story for Ruffalo may be grounded in personal history: The actor’s younger brother Scott died of a gunshot wound in 2008, under circumstances never fully explained. In I Know This Much Is True he plays twin brothers, one of whom, Thomas Birdsey, suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. The other twin, Dominick, is the protagonist, the ordinary complications of his life multiplied exponentially by his brother’s delusions and self-destructive behavior.

In the first episode, Thomas is incarcerated in a facility for the criminally insane after maiming himself in a public library, proclaiming that he has been ordained by God to sacrifice his own hand. It falls to Dominick to try to extricate Thomas and return him to the more benign mental institution where he has been committed following earlier, less spectacular episodes of disconnect from reality.

I Know This Much Is True was filmed primarily in the mid-Hudson.  Most of the settings for the Birdseys’ family history, which involves flashbacks to their Italian immigrant forebears as well as to the twins’ troubled childhood, take place in Poughkeepsie’s “Little Italy,” the Mount Carmel neighborhood. A stretch of Route 209 was shut down to film highway scenes. Kingston, Wappingers Falls, Ellenville and Newburgh all played host to film crews in 2019 as well.

Look familiar? (HBO)

If you’re a local, the series is worth checking out simply to enjoy the panoramic shots of the Mid-Hudson Bridge, to spot friends who got hired as extras or to experience the rush of recognition of a hometown shooting location. But it’s Mark Ruffalo’s acting chops that prove the big payoff here. His commitment to the dual role is extraordinary.

Some scenes in which the twins are in the same space had to be shot twice, months apart, allowing time for him to pack on 30 pounds to play Thomas. That weight gain, along with Dominick’s goatee versus Thomas’ clean-shaven chin, are mere icing on the cake, though. You know in an instant by the way he holds himself or the timbre of his voice which twin the actor is playing in any shot. Both brothers pierce the viewer’s heart, each in a profoundly different way.

Two episodes in (the series premiered on May 10), Cianfrance’s writing has settled a bit from a rocky start, and this reviewer’s initial fears that the show might wallow too deeply in melodrama are ebbing. There’s a sequence in Episode 1 in which a graduate student (Juliette Lewis) whom Dominick has hired to translate his grandfather’s memoir gets drunk, makes a pass at him, and then becomes abusive when he fails to respond. Lewis’ performance is way over-the-top as she wrestles with cringeworthy dialogue, and I was on the verge of walking away at that point. The rest of the cast, fortunately, grabs the ball and runs with it to more convincing effect.

That Hudson Valley treasure Melissa Leo is impressive as always in her too-brief scenes as the twins’ mother, who’s dying of cancer but still won’t tell them who their real father is. Two other crucial women in Dominick’s life are his ex-wife Dessa (Kathryn Hahn), with whom he has considerable unfinished business, and his much-younger current girlfriend Joy (Imogen Poots), who insists on a life that doesn’t revolve around Thomas at all times. Dominick’s own need for such a life emerges in testy interactions in Episode 2 with his twin’s psychiatrist Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi) and social worker Lisa Sheffer (Rosie O’Donnell), both excellent. John Procaccino is chilling as the twins’ abusive stepfather, Ray Birdsey, and Rob Huebel lightens the story’s grim tone in the role of Leo, Dominick’s feckless best friend and ex-brother-in-law.

Aside from the location-spotting aspect, I Know This Much Is True isn’t what most TV viewers would consider a fun or easy watch. The subject matter is already dark and troubling, and reportedly headed for yet-darker revelations, both in the mental hospital/prison and in the family tree. Even the light side of Mark Ruffalo’s character here carries enough (well-earned) anger around with him to fuel a Hulk and a half.

If you enjoy challenging narrative and grey characters who are often difficult to like, this series will give you plenty to chew on.

There is one comment

  1. Steven L Fornal

    Mark Ruffalo knocks it out of the park! Fantastic performance. I’d say it will be the very best of his career. And when the award season arrives, he could run away with the Best Actor AND Best Supporting Actor awards for his roles as Thomas and Dominic Birdsey.

    For those who would be actors? Watch and learn.

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