Entertainment

07.10.13

‘The Bridge’: FX’s New U.S.-Mexican Border Thriller

FX’s ‘The Bridge,’ about a serial killer investigation that entangles both sides of the U.S.–Mexico border, is very good. If you haven’t seen the Danish-Swedish series it’s based on, you might even think it’s great.

Borders are complex signifiers, reinforcing both national and cultural identities as well as distinguishing between outsiders and insiders. Where you are, how you see yourself, depends largely on what side of the wall—visible or invisible—you’re standing on at the moment. Few modern-day national borders are as fraught or as psychologically charged as that between the United States and Mexico, a nearly 2,000-mile line in the sand that is the most frequently crossed international border in the world.

It’s this international way station that acts as the backdrop for FX’s provocative new mystery thriller The Bridge, which is based on the Danish/Swedish drama Broen and which begins its 13-episode run Wednesday night at 10 p.m. The American adaptation of the hit drama series (a ratings success in the Nordic region as well as in the U.K.) moves its crosscultural concerns away from Scandinavia, instead exploring the socioeconomic, psychological, and cultural effects of the border between the U.S. and Mexico and two detectives from either side of the divide.

When the corpse of a woman is discovered in the middle of the Bridge of the Americas (also known as the Cordova Bridge), which links El Paso, Texas with Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, each country claims jurisdiction over the incident. As the bridge is shut down while the identity of the victim is ascertained, detectives Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) and Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir) square off over whether an an ambulance—carrying a wealthy American citizen in the throes of a heart attack—should be allowed to cross the border.

It’s the first time that these two disparate people—American and Mexican, female and male, introspective and gregarious—have met, and the collision between Sonya and Marco informs much of the drama to come as they are forced to work together to track down an insidious and intelligent killer. The woman on the bridge, as the detectives come to learn, isn’t just a single corpse: the top half and the bottom half belong to two separate victims, one an American judge and the other an unknown female, one of former murder capital Juárez’s hundreds of slain women in the last 20-odd years, whose continued disappearances and deaths now register barely a mention in the American media.

‘The Bridge’ uses the personality clash between its lead detectives as stand-ins for the border’s never-ending tug of war.

The killer, it seems, has a need to bring to light some of the shocking inequalities between the U.S. and Mexico, but he is no crusader. Instead, he—or perhaps she—delights in causing mayhem on both sides of the border, illuminating the travesties facing those trapped by the border while simultaneously perpetuating them. He has a drive to create both carnage and impact, and he reaches out to Daniel Frye (Matthew Lillard, appropriately smarmy here), a drug-addicted newspaper reporter working well below his potential, in order to cast his message even wider.

Who the killer is and what he truly wants remains the season’s largest mystery, but as I argued last year about the original Danish/Swedish version, The Bridge isn’t just about the plot to catch a serial killer, but also literal and figurative connections. In the original, Swedish detective Saga Norén (Sofia Helin) and her Danish counterpart, Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), are diametrically opposed in every way, but over the course of the 10-episode series, they manage to come together in an unexpectedly emotional manner: “Just as Saga tries to forge an emotional connection with her partner, Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), the show itself parses connections between a personal guilt and societal complicity, between the past and the present, the bridges between countries, cultures, and individuals.”

That rubric applies here as well; while FX sent out only three episodes to critics ahead of the show’s launch, it appears fairly early on that the American version of The Bridge similarly intends to take a deep dive into the cultural and psychological undercurrents of the border crossing, exploring the role of drugs and human trafficking on the area, of pimps and cartels, of cops and criminals. Under the aegis of Elwood Reid and Meredith Stiehm, The Bridge uses the personality clash between its lead detectives as stand-ins for the border’s never-ending tug of war.

The early episodes of The Bridge show some minor changes to the overall plot of Broen, ones necessitated by the shift away from the more cosmopolitan Copenhagen/Malmö border to the troubled one between El Paso and Juárez. One subplot exchanges homeless people for illegal immigrants crossing into the United States. Changes to the serial killer plot are fairly cosmetic, but the cultural divide between the U.S. and Mexico, far more vast than the relatively minor gap between the two wealthy Nordic social democracies in the original,  provides even more thematic depths. Those murdered girls of Juárez loom large here, informing the story in unexpected and challenging ways. We keenly feel the sense of complicity on both sides, symbolized by those many graves.

One change for the better is the handling of Charlotte, here presented as a former Tampa waitress turned wealthy rancher’s wife and played with aplomb by Annabeth Gish. In Broen, the character’s storyline seemed to be largely disjointed from the action after the first few episodes—she’s the wife of the man having the heart attack on the bridge—and she disappears altogether a few episodes before the climactic ending. Given the casting of Gish, however, one imagines that Charlotte will be sticking around for a while longer. Rather than simply have Charlotte serve as a self-contained detour, the producers of the American series have wisely realized that her storyline needs to be interwoven with the main plot. A discovery that Charlotte makes in the second episode (and a shocking reveal in the third) appear to point towards long-ranging and intriguing consequences. (It also helps that Lyle Lovett puts in a strongly Lynchian performance as a seemingly placid attorney, one with a mysterious client that has an interest in Charlotte’s land.)

Overall, The Bridge is a taut thriller mystery that is compelling and thought-provoking, much as Broen was. Demián Bichir is sensational as detective Marco Ruiz, a character struggling to walk the fine ethical line amid a corrupt, amoral police culture. He turns Ruiz into a charming detective, a figurative ladykiller in search of a literal one; it’s a performance that is on par with that of Broen’s Kim Bodnia. Bichir manages to be gruff but sensitive, honest yet mysterious, making Ruiz a mix of righteousness and compassion.

Diane Kruger’s performance as detective Sonya Cross, however, doesn’t quite match the awe-inspiring quality of Broen’s Sofia Helin, who plays Sonya’s Nordic counterpart. Both women play the brusque, detached detective as a professional with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome, but Kruger seems almost timid at times, particularly when compared to the Helin’s Porsche-driving, leather-pants-clad force of nature. While both women struggle to make emotional connections and fail to comprehend social cues, it’s Helin who created an iconic character, aided perhaps by some of her more loud sartorial and vehicular choices. This isn’t to say that Kruger is miscast, but rather that her Sonya is a little too soft and fearful—appearing as a frail bird caught in a net at times—where she should be powerful and unstoppable to a fault.

Having said that, The Bridge has quite enough suspense and tension within make the American adaptation worth checking out. As the action shuttles back and forth between El Paso and Juárez, the cast of characters widens to include all manner of colorful and troubled individuals, those dreaming of better lives and those escaping their hellish pasts. Like its predecessor, The Bridge looks to find ways of connecting and understanding those whose viewpoints are markedly different from our own.