The new HBO mini-series “I Know This Much Is True” takes a personality and places him via a wringer that’s so unforgiving, you’d count on it to flatten him fully, to squeeze out every little thing however the allegory of struggling. That it doesn’t — that there’s sufficient juice in him to maintain you reasonably for many of the six-hour-plus story — is nearly completely due to the person enjoying him, Mark Ruffalo. It’s arduous to think about anybody else who may discover this a lot life within the present’s modern-day Job.
The director and first author, Derek Cianfrance, working from a 900-page best-seller by Wally Lamb, wastes no time getting to the myriad misfortunes of Dominick Birdsey, a small-town Connecticut house painter. “I Know This Much Is True” begins with Dominick’s schizophrenic twin, Thomas (also played by Ruffalo), chopping off his hand in a public library.
While that grisly (though not exceedingly graphic) scene is the catalyst for a tragic family saga, it’s only one item in Dominick’s catalog of grief. In addition to his brother’s condition, which irradiates Dominick with both guilt and self-pity, he’s haunted by the deaths of close family members, a heartbreaking divorce, his hatred of his strict stepfather and his rage at never knowing who his biological father was. He is his brother’s keeper and, of course, his alter ego, with a hair-trigger rage that’s the purportedly rational counterpart to Thomas’s involuntary darkness.
It’s a lot, and it plays out in 1990 against the backdrop of the first Gulf War, the big story on the television sets before which the characters are often slumped. Thomas, whose schizophrenia entails hearing messages from God, cuts off his hand as a sacrifice to prevent the war. It’s just one of the story’s many futile gestures.
There’s more melodrama than genuine tragedy or social commentary in this material, but Cianfrance and his cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes, give it a convincing, seductive fabric of lower-middle-class, Northeastern naturalism. And the Sturm und Drang are enlivened by elements of mystery and suspense: whether Dominick will identify his father, and whether he’ll get Thomas released from a harsh psychiatric prison, a quest in which he’s helped by a sympathetic social worker played by Rosie O’Donnell and a watchful psychiatrist played by Archie Panjabi.
Cianfrance artfully toggles between past and present, as events constantly cast Dominick into reveries or nightmares about his and Thomas’s childhood and college years, when Thomas slowly progressed from sensitive child to mentally ill adult. Less artfully, he incorporates a major subplot from the book, involving a memoir written by the brothers’ Sicilian immigrant grandfather that parallels and prefigures the bitterness of their lives and hints at supernatural causes for the family’s calamities — a curse that Dominick needs to break. These early-20th-century flashbacks, while competent enough, don’t add much; they feel like outtakes from a Taviani Brothers movie.
Ruffalo is dependably good throughout, delineating Dominick’s anger and weariness while making him more than just an avatar for them, and, without much help from the script, getting across Thomas’s helpless pain. The playing-twins trick doesn’t often enter your mind, partly because the story is so focused on Dominick but mainly because Ruffalo’s work is so unobtrusive.
Cianfrance has shown before, in his film “Blue Valentine” with Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, that he knows how to get out of the way of good actors. He does it here with Ruffalo, and with John Procaccino, who plays the stepfather. Other excellent performers, like Panjabi and Kathryn Hahn, as Dominick’s ex-wife, don’t have a lot to work with; even at more than six hours, Dominick takes up so much of the show’s air that other characters fight to register.
The one exception to that is Juliette Lewis, who’s funny and vivid in an oddly limited role as a grad student who translates Dominick’s grandfather’s manuscript, and then tells him that perhaps he shouldn’t read it. She has one great scene, a drunken nighttime visit to Dominick’s house, but then mostly vanishes.
It’s the series’s one really lively scene, but even there Cianfrance and Lipes’s tastefully off-kilter, hand-held aesthetic maintains a mood but doesn’t do much for the energy level. And while “I Know This Much Is True” pulls you along on the strengths of its soap opera mechanics, its smoothly downbeat vibe and Ruffalo’s performance, it promises more than it delivers — eventually the story collapses in on itself, settling for the sentimental formulas it’s been pretending it was above.