5* for TV adaptation of Stephen King novel
Brendan Gleeson playing the lead in a series based on a Stephen King novel, with David E Kelley (Big Little Lies) as showrunner, King and Dennis Lehane, who’s also written some of the scripts, as executive producers, and frequent Game of Thrones director Jack Bender taking charge behind the camera.
What’s not to like? After last night’s first episode of Mr Mercedes, a 10-part adaptation of King’s bestseller about a retired homicide detective haunted by his failure to catch a mass-murderer who’s reappeared to taunt him, the answer is absolutely nothing.
It’s fantastic: a big, chunky, immediately addictive gem of a thriller. It grabs you by the ears and yanks you in from the very start, dropping you back in your seat an hour later, hungering for the next instalment.
Mr Mercedes is not one of King’s horror stories — he described the novel, which came out in 2014 and won the Edgar Award, as his first hard-boiled detective book — yet it is extremely horrific.
In an opening scene that chillingly mirrors contemporary terrorist atrocities, a silver Mercedes, driven by a man in a clown mask, ploughs into a group of unemployed people queueing overnight in Ohio to be first into a jobs fair.
Sixteen die in the carnage, including a young mother and her baby, who are crushed inside a sleeping bag. It’s an unflinchingly brutal, close-up shocker of a scene. Somehow, though, it never feels exploitative.
Two years on, Irish-American former detective Bill Hodges (Gleeson) is tormented by his inability to solve the case. Divorced and living alone (apart from a pet tortoise called Fred), he’s slid into an indolent retirement.
He shuffles around his suburban house in his skivvies amid a wreckage of beer cans, whiskey bottles and unwashed dishes, falls asleep in front of the TV, yells at the neighbourhood kids who play hockey outside his house, and measures his physical deterioration by the number of belt notches needed to accommodate his expanding gut.
Bill is goaded into hitting reverse on his journey to an early grave by an email from “the Mercedes killer” that links to a taunting video, which disappears from his computer as soon as he’s watched it.
More of this stuff follows, growing progressively more sick and twisted. One video offers a dashboard camera-view of the Merc ramming through the crowd; another is a home movie of that young mother and her baby, obscenely doctored to have blood pouring from their mouths and eyes. This definitely isn’t a series for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.
Mr Mercedes is a classic game of cat-and-mouse, so we soon learn that the sicko behind all this is Brady Hartsfield (a superbly creepy Harry Treadaway, in a role originally intended for the late Anton Yelchin).
Hartsfield is a computer whizz who works in a drab job in an electronics store, marking down DVDs and making call-outs to fix customers’ computers.
In one of the many shivery little touches sprinkled throughout — the queasiest of all being the incestuous mutual desires between Hartsfield and his dissolute mother (Kelly Lynch) — it’s the very store Hodges goes to when he decides to buy home-surveillance gear. Uh-oh!
Hartsfield has a second job driving an ice-cream van, which allows him to get inside Hodge’s neighbourhood with as much ease as he gets inside his head. The obsessive ex-cop, who can’t let go of an old case, is a detective fiction trope so ancient its eyebrows require regular trimming, yet here it bristles with new life. A lot of credit for that is due to Gleeson, who’s always magnetically watchable.
Any actor would grab a role like Hodges. I can’t think of anyone else but Gleeson, though, who would play him with a complete disregard for vanity. He really is terrific here, making us feel every jab of guilt-ridden pain.
But it’s also down to the classy, patient writing, which makes this first episode (and the second, which I’ve seen already) purr with slow-burning dread, and a wonderful supporting cast, including Holland Taylor as widow-next-door Ida, who has amorous designs on Hodges, and Jharrel Jerome as the clever, Harvard-bound teenager who becomes an accidental sidekick.
But the bedrock is King’s book. TV hasn’t always done justice to fiction’s greatest living storyteller. Mr Mercedes looks like it will.
Mr Mercedes, RTE 1, Tuesdays
Class divisions in Ireland are all the more insidious for being relatively invisible. Britain has its Bullingdon Club toffs cracking plates over one another’s heads; in the United States the gulf between privilege and poverty often follows racial lines.