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'I Know This Much Is True' review: Great Mark Ruffalo performance, tethered to unengaging story

Mark Ruffalo as Dominick and Thomas Birdsey

 Mark Ruffalo as Dominick and Thomas Birdsey in HBO's "I Know This Much Is True." Credit: HBO Now

LIMITED SERIES "I Know This Much Is True"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO

 WHAT IT'S ABOUT After Thomas Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo) cuts off his hand in the public library of a small Connecticut city — he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.-- he's confined to a maximum-security prison. His twin brother, Dominick (also Ruffalo), insists the incarceration is a mistake, and demands his release, enlisting the help of social worker Lisa Sheffer (Rosie O'Donnell) and psychiatrist, Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi). This six-part series also explores the Birdsey back story, notably a father missing since before their birth. Based on Wally Lamb's 1998 bestseller, it's directed by Derek Cianfrance, an acclaimed independent filmmaker (2010s "Blue Valentine") who — like Ruffalo — also lost a sibling. His sister, Megan, died last year and Scott Ruffalo in 2008. This series is dedicated to them. 


 MY SAY Ruffalo is usually the best reason to watch anything he's in, and "I Know This Much Is True" has the added benefit of two Ruffalos. Scarcely apart since birth, the twin brothers he plays are doomed by circumstances and to an extent by each other. They are tragic people in a tragic world anchored to a tragic heritage — one of them to a terrifying disease. Ruffalo, who gained 30 pounds to play Thomas, pretty much nails them both.

Cianfrance's direction, meanwhile, nails some other key elements, notably a certain type of New Englander — that so-called "Swamp Yankee," who's a bit eccentric, pinched, ascetic, and grimly stoic. Cianfrance's gray skies weep on them, while his screen palette is all exotic shades of greens and blues. (Set in Connecticut, this was filmed in New York.) He pushes the camera right up into the face of his performers so that there's no place for them — or for you — to escape to. Cianfrance's surface is beautiful and Harold Budd's music score is too. The legendary avant-garde composer, now 83, has created something remarkable here. 

But what about the subsurface, where meaning, story and that so-called truth of the title lies? Therein is the near-fatal flaw. Dominick seethes then seethes some more, and when he's not seething, he's smoldering. He pushes people away because that's what seethers and smolderers do. Dominick is not much fun, nor, consequently, is the six-and-a-half hours of screen time that he fills up — and fills up really close.

It's not Ruffalo's fault — he's great here — but the material is spread too thin over too much canvas, then culminates in too banal a "truth." In a word, it's as dull as it is grim. 

 BOTTOM LINE First-rate craftsmanship tethered to a relentlessly gloomy and ultimately unengaging story.

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