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[KING'S CORNER] Mr. Mercedes (2017)

Updated: Mar 19

Mr. Mercedes - King's Corner Review


Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the Film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.


Director: Jack Bender, Laura Innes, John David Coles, Kevin Hooks, Peter Weller, Michael J. Leone

Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Holland Tayler, Jharrel Jerome, Breeda Wool, Justine Lupe, Harry Treadaway


Written by: David E. Kelley, Sophie Owens Bender, Jonathan Shapiro, Mike Batistick, Dennis Lehane Bryan Goluboff, Alexi Deane, Samantha Stratton, A.M. Homes

Produced by: Kate Regan, Brian Walsh, Ian Woolf, Ellen Stafford, Danielle Weinstock

Cinematography by: Armando Salas, Eliot Rocket, Itai Ne'eman, Yaron Levy, Ross Berryman, Rick Davidson

Original Score by: David Vanacore, Anthony Roman, Phil Mossman


Synopsis:

A demented killer taunts a retired police detective with a series of lurid letters and emails, forcing the ex-cop to undertake a private, and potentially felonious, crusade to bring the killer to justice before he can strike again.


Mr Mercedes Review

Thoughts:

Whenever you hear the name Stephen King the first word your mind jumps to is horror. His influence on the genre (both on the page and screen) is undeniable making him a household name. Although he doesn't shy away from his "Master of Horror" moniker he has never shied away from his love of a good crime story. Growing up he had a love of Agatha Christie's work and although he always felt like he couldn't construct a story in the puzzle like fashion she did he still greatly admired her work in the genre. He has touched on it with his short story work with the likes of 'Dolan's Cadillac' and 'The Ledge' and later at length with contributions to Hard Case Crime series but has never really liked his work to be defined by one particular genre. He spoke of this in an interview with the Associated Press in 2021 by saying, "My idea is to tell a good story, and if it crosses some lines and it doesn't fit one particular genre, that's good." 



Despite this being his stance there is no doubt that his Bill Hodges trilogy of books are primarily crime novels (even though they contain some supernatural elements as they progress). The idea for the story came to King when he heard of a news story on a trip from Florida back to Maine about a woman who drove her car into a McDonald's restaurant after getting into an argument with another woman. Her actions resulted in two deaths and several people being injured. The story stuck with King for over a year which reawakened his desire to write a story about a really dark version of a villain from an Agatha Christie novel. His childhood obsession with serial killer Charles Starkweather also entered his consciousness again with this and all of the other elements forming the basis of what would become 'Mr. Mercedes'. The basic outline of the novel sees a killer who murders multiple people at a jobs fair by running them over. Years after the incident he sends a letter to a now retired detective who was investigating the case in which he tries to guilt him to commit suicide because of his failings but it has the opposite effect as he becomes more determined to catch the killer. 


The book was a critical success and a follow up novel, 'Finders Keepers' was released a year later which saw King dip his toe into the world of the obsessed fan that he previously explored in 'Misery' and 'Lisey's Story' once again. It centres on a fumbled theft that sees a small-time crook, Morris Bellamy, on the hunt for the lost manuscripts of famous author John Rothstein whom he murdered by accident. The last book in the series, 'End of Watch', sees the return of the villain from the first novel, Brady Hartsfield thanks to a supernatural twist as Bill Hodges tries to stop him once and for all even though the shadow of death is looming over him. 



In 2015 Sonar entertainment optioned the rights to adapt the first novel, 'Mr. Mercedes' as a limited series with David E. Kelley (who previously worked on the likes of Ally McBeal and L.A Law) as writer with Jack Bender (who worked on the subpar Under the Dome series) as the main choice to direct it. Although they were unusual candidates for the job, Kelley relished the opportunity as King fan to write and develop such great characters. He would end up sticking closely to the source material making a few changes in order to build upon some of the character work. He also reached out to crime novelist Dennis Lehane (of Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island fame) to co-write the script with him. The first series was such a success it allowed the team to adapt the other two novels over the course of another two seasons of television. 


Brendan Gleeson as Bill Hodges in Mr Mercedes

When you read through the Bill Hodges trilogy the last person you picture in the role is Brendan Gleeson but within minutes of watching his performance you realise that it is one of the most inspired pieces of casting in any adaptation of King's work. Instead of adopting the character's Ohio based accent he keeps his native brogue in a move that adds another layer to the character. When we first meet Hodges in the show he is a pathetic wreck. Retired for a few years he is slowly drinking himself to death with his days as empty as the cans of beer he wakes up beside everyday. He has no real drive in life, only occasionally meeting old friends and exchanging pleasantries (that more times than not carry barbs) with his neighbour Ida (played by Holland Taylor). Then the Mercedes Killer comes back into his life taunting him with a series of video messages that reinvigorate Hodges giving him direction in life again to catch the killer. This character growth is handled brilliantly by Gleeson over the course of the first season (and the two subsequent seasons) as the gradual approach to it in the small changes physically and in his attitude make him a loveable rogue. The weight of the case on Hodges through Gleeson's performance. Any sort of adversity or obstacle can set him off on a rant or outburst against anyone he gets on the wrong side of him. As an emotionally introverted person he can only express himself through anger and sarcastic jibes. One of the best examples of this is the "No problem" scene in the first season when Hodges gets in an argument with a bartender over his use of language. Gleeson plays these moments perfectly as the manner in which he curses or shouts is pure poetry but for all of the anger there is also a tinge of regret over how he handles himself emotionally, even when it is not a conscious decision. As the show progresses he learns to become more open and forgiving through the relationships he establishes and grows which offers a different dimension to the character from Gleeson making him the main reason you tune into every episode of the show. 



Opposite Gleeson as the mysterious Mercedes Killer is the extremely troubled electronics store worker, Brady Hartsfield (played by Harry Treadaway who took over the role from Anton Yelchin after his tragic fatal accident). He is someone who hides in plain sight and comes across as a bit of an oddball but once the show explores his homelife it peels back another darker layer to the character. He lives at home with his alcoholic mother Deborah (Kelly Lynch) who often engages in sexual activity with him. It is an insight into the creation of a monster who wallows rather than trying to escape this kind of existence to the point where it leads him to murder (which started with his brother as a child). Whilst in its simplest form Brady can be described as the worst version of an incel-like keyboard warrior, Treadaway's physicality in the role is what sells it. Behind his tall, skinny figure his movement is quite withdrawn and stiff giving the impression that he is a basement dwelling loner but it is the manner in which his eyes are almost hidden at times that gives rise to something dark and sinister. 


In terms of the rest of the cast one of the stand out figures is that of Holly Gibney (played by Justine Lupe). A favourite recurring character in King's work having appeared in 'The Outsider', 'If It Bleeds' and recently leading her own story 'Holly' it is easy to see why King loves the character so much when you watch 'Mr. Mercedes'. When we first meet her halfway through the first season her life is dictated not just by her OCD but her overbearing mother as she has almost no autonomy in her life. The transformation Lupe conveys as her character breaks free from control in opening up more through her budding friendship with Bill Hodges is a joy to watch. As the show progresses you can clearly see the gradual transformation to the character thanks to the slight tics and mannerisms from Lupe. This transformation reaches its peak in season 3 when she testifies in Lou's case in an emotionally charged yet cathartic moment for the character that Lupe lands perfectly. 


Brendan Gleeson and Harry Treadaway in Mr Mercedes

Other standouts in the cast are Jharrel Jerome as Bill's neighbour Jerome who helps Bill on the tech side of things when investigating the case. One of the subplots of the series features Jerome coping with his Harvard scholarship and that weight of expectancy can be seen through Jerome's performance as it only fades away whenever he is helping Bill and Holly with the case. Holland Taylor is also great, offering humour and heart as Bill's neighbour and confidant Ida whose friendship deepens with Bill as he learns to open up more. Breeda Wool is also a highlight as Brady's co-worker Lou who faces adversity over her sexuality. She tries to hide it behind sarcasm but the pain in Wool's facial expressions make her strife all the more heartbreaking throughout the show. 


As a whole the first season (which focuses on the first book in the trilogy) is without a doubt the best thanks to the way the show builds not just from a story point of view but a character's perspective. Full credit has to go to the writer's room on the show as they allow the tension to build slowly in Bill's cat and mouse game with Brady. Even the manner in which their respective character arcs intersect makes the first season of the show some of the best stuff from King ever committed to television. Credit also has to go to showrunner David E. Kelley in how he doesn't soften the edges of the book showing no hesitation in leaning into it. It makes for some brutal viewing at times but it is also very in keeping with the book in that respect as it goes places other King adaptations have lacked the conviction to do so in the past. 



With the second season there is divergence from the books as it is more of an adaptation of the final book 'End of Watch' than the second, 'Finders Keepers'. This makes sense from a narrative point of view as it follows a through line into the aspects of the story involving Brady picking up months after the events of the season one finale. Now in hospital after Bill, Holly and Jerome stopped him from blowing up an art centre on its opening night with Holly nearly bludgeoning him to death, the season more or less deals with the aftermath of everything he has done. Whilst that is an interesting idea, it isn't enough to sustain an entire 10 episode season of television. 


Brendan Gleeson and Jack Huston in Mr Mercedes

While this is happening Brady is given an experimental drug from neurosurgeon Felix Babineau (Jack Huston) at the behest of his wife (and head of marketing at a pharmaceutical company) Cora (Tessa Ferrer). The "Lady Macbeth" dynamic between the two is quite interesting but again it is the source of this season's problems as it makes the turn towards something supernatural and outside of the realm of belief as the drug Brady is given allows him to take control of weak minded people through some strange form of telepathy. As with the book it is a jarring shift in gear that never really aligns with the grounded nature of the first season making for a disappointing experience. 


In the final season the focus is on the second book in the series, 'Finders Keepers.' Whilst the show deals with Lou's assassination of Brady in court from the end of season two the main focus is on Morris Bellamy (Gabriel Ebert) who alongside Alma (Kate Mulgrew) try to track down the manuscripts of author John Rothstein (Bruce Dern) who was killed by Bellamy in a robbery gone wrong. Whilst the show still feels a little bogged down by the legacy of Brady, this new story elements injects a lot of life into the final season. Ebert and Mulgrew bring a lot of unhinged energy to the show through their disturbing relationship and the sporadic appearances of Dern throughout the series adds a lot of quality to the show as it narratively takes a turn back to the tone of the first season. 



One of the most fascinating aspects of the season is how it tackles our relationships to renowned popular writers. In the show Rothstein is perceived to be an anti establishment writer along the lines of a J.D. Salinger with different characters showing a range of emotions towards him from obsession to admiration to indifference. Morris and Alma are like the answer to the question, "What if Annie Wilkes married Jim Dooley?" as they cling to every word the man has written with fatal consequences as they misinterpret the message to the author's writing. Rothstein's death hits Bill hard as he played a major role in his formative years but as the season progresses with his visions of the writer he slowly comes to terms with how foolish he was for letting the writer have such a hold on his life thanks to Jerome's critiques of his work. 



With 'Mr. Mercedes' David E. Kelley took three books of differing styles held together by the strong and stubborn character of Bill Hodges and delivered a fine piece of television. In the various divergences from the novels he was able to put his own stamp on the characters without drifting too far from the source material that delivered for both fans and newcomers to the story. Whilst it wasn't always of the highest quality throughout, it was always a wickedly entertaining thriller thanks mainly to some solid writing and a terrific cast led by the brilliant Brendan Gleeson. 


Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️½


-Joseph McElroy


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