Mr Mercedes review: Brendan Gleeson brings his grizzly skills to bear
Beneath the generic cat and mouse game is a picture of American masculinity and its fateful engine trouble
Gleeson seems undecided as to where his character is from so settles for Naturalised American Irish Bear
It is 2009, in a recession-stricken Ohio, and a huge queue of people has gathered overnight for the next morning’s job fair. Idling long enough to humanise the crowd – the sympathetic go-getter, the frazzled single mother, the boorish lout – David E Kelley’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 2014 novel then reveals a growling Mercedes, and a heavy-breathing driver in (what else?) a clown mask, revving its engine and accelerating into the crowd.
“He didn’t lose control,” growls the bearish detective Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson) at the scene of 16 deaths. Losing control, however, will be the obsession of the series.
As King did with his novel, making a rare foray into mysteries of a non-supernatural order, so the TV show attempts to wrest control back from grisly cop-show formulae and plumb the depths of human drama. It is not entirely successful.
Most of its gravitas involves the casting of Gleeson, who, in the first episode, seems undecided as to whether to make his character Irish, American, Irish-American or simply Bear. (He settles for Naturalised American Irish Bear.) Two years after the event, and now retired, his growl may now be worse than his maul, living in beery oblivion in the company of a humming record player and a pet tortoise, his equal for both agility and dress sense.
“A slow choking death,” is how his flirty, sassy neighbour Ida (Holland Taylor) pitches retirement, offering herself as its antidote.
But another hobby arrives via email, in a ghoulishly taunting message from the Mercedes killer, identified to the audience early as the boyish Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway), a minimum-wage slave in an electronics store, never identified or apprehended. So begins a cat and mouse game between two needy antagonists, neither of whom can abide life in the slow lane.
Kelley, fresh from his success with the Emmy-festooned Big Little Lies, daubs the new show with his customary forced quirkiness (Ida, for instance, insists that Bill appreciate a naked photo of her), and Gleeson, to his great credit, gruffly resists it. The pacing of its early episodes (streaming free from its US broadcaster) has a tendency to shuffle along, accumulating character detail, like Bill’s tortoise.
Yet the show may have loftier ambitions to capture the American zeitgeist. A luxury saloon car mowing down its huddled masses, its tired, hungry and poor, may not be the most nuanced metaphor. But an unsteady, security-conscious retiree (seen in the opening credits holding his gun just to switch off the record player), and a killer with an incestuous home life, who fritters away his time as a masturbating internet troll, make it seem like a fidgety portrait of a worried, perplexed, emasculated US.
Now viewed in the post-Obama era, and in the ugly, frustrated light of those consequences, it is a detective show about how a nation lost control of the wheel.