The Good Nurse
Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne star in this chilling true-crime tale about a serial killer in the medical profession.
October 20, 2022
UPDATE, October 26, 2022: The Good Nurse released in select cinemas Down Under on October 20, and streams via Netflix from October 26.
It isn't called CULLEN — Monster: The Charles Cullen Story. It doesn't chart the murders of a serial killer who's already a household name. And, it doesn't unfurl over multiple episodes. Still, Netflix-distributed true-crime film The Good Nurse covers homicides, and the person behind them, that are every bit as grim and horrendous as the events dramatised in DAHMER — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. Such based-on-reality tales that face such evil are always nightmare fodder, but this Eddie Redmayne (Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore)- and Jessica Chastain (The Forgiven)-starring one, as brought to the screen by Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm (A War, A Hijacking), taps into a particularly terrifying realm. The culprit clearly isn't the good nurse of the movie's moniker, but he is a nurse, working in intensive care units no less — and for anyone who has needed to put their trust in the health system or may in the future (aka all of us), his acts are gut-wrenchingly chilling.
Hospitals are meant to be places that heal, even in America's cash-driven setup where free medical care for all isn't considered a basic right and a societal must. Hospitals are meant to care for the unwell and injured, as are the doctors, nurses and other staff who race through their halls. There is one such person in The Good Nurse, Amy Loughren, who Chastain plays based on a real person. In 2003, in New Jersey, she's weathering her own struggles: she's a single mother to two young girls, she suffers from cardiomyopathy to the point of needing a heart transplant, and she can't tell her job about her health condition because she needs to remain employed for four more months to qualify for insurance to treat it. Then enters Cullen (Redmayne), the newcomer on Loughren's night shifts, a veteran of nine past hospitals, an instant friend who offers to help her cope with her potentially lethal ailment and also the reason that their patients start dying suddenly.
There's no spoiler alert needed about The Good Nurse's grisly deeds or the person responsible. Cullen's name hasn't been changed in Krysty Wilson-Cairns' (Last Night in Soho, 1917) script, which adapts Charles Graeber's 2013 non-fiction book The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder, and Loughren's similarly remains the same. The Good Nurse also opens with the quietly disquieting Cullen retreating as someone in a different hospital years earlier goes into convulsions — standing back motionless, he tries to appear anxious but instead looks like a creepy blank canvas. Accordingly, that he's the cause of much of the movie's horrors is a given from the outset, but that's only one of Lindholm and Wilson-Cairns' angles. As aided by centring Loughren's plight, The Good Nurse is also a film about institutional failings and coverups with very real consequences.
Indeed, as set to an eerie score by Biosphere (Burma Storybook), there's a procedural feel to Lindholm's first feature in America; that he helmed episodes of Mindhunter beforehand doesn't come as a surprise. There are cops, too, in the form of detectives Baldwin (Nnamdi Asomugha, Sylvie's Love) and Braun (Noah Emmerich, Dark Winds), who are brought in seven weeks after a patient's passing just after Cullen arrives. But nurse-turned-administrator Linda Garran (Fear the Walking Dead), who summons the police, is hardly forthcoming — about the almost-two-month delay or with information overall. It isn't in the hospital's interests to be upfront, which is why and how Cullen has kept moving from healthcare facility to healthcare facility, and notching up a body count at each by spiking IV bags with fatal doses of insulin and other medications. No hospital wants to be seen to be at fault, and won't warn fellow institutions, either.
Long before figures are splashed across the screen — the significant number of victims admitted to, and the far more vast tally authorities suspect Cullen has killed — The Good Nurse is distressing. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood) lights the movie like a horror flick, using darkness and shadows for a story filled with them, but there's more than just an icy tone and mood at play in that choice. Crucially absent is the vision of slick, gleaming medical setups seen in hospital-focused TV dramas and comedies, and in illness weepies, because nothing is softened or soothed here. Even if Cullen hadn't crossed her path, Loughren's own relationship with the health industry is disturbing enough. Doting on her patients with a dream of a nurturing disposition, she truly fits the film's title — and yet her own life depends upon her grinning and bearing her own sickness so that she doesn't lose her job, otherwise she won't be able to afford the treatment necessary for her own survival.
Fresh from winning an Oscar for The Eyes of Tammy Faye after two prior nominations, and having a busy year with The 355, The Forgiven and Armageddon Time already in or bound for cinemas — and with TV show George & Tammy also soon to drop — Chastain is restrained but commanding as a woman in an excruciating situation several times over. Frequently, and with Lipes peering close to her face, she conveys The Good Nurse's engrained dismay and shock purely in her gaze. That expression is loaded with commitment and concern as well, in a performance that's always the movie's weathervane. Fellow past Academy Award recipient Redmayne is nowhere near as subtle, proving both forceful in Cullen's ordinary mannerisms and later histrionics; a frequent trait of his work in general, it mostly fits given his current part is needling from the get-go.
In far different territory than the last feature boasting his involvement — that'd be Danish day-drinking dramedy Another Round, which he co-wrote — Lindholm lets unease drip from Redmayne as Cullen, rather than have it astonish. He isn't interested in endeavouring to explain the why of it all, either, accepting that something this awful can happen because it has, and serving up no attempt at finding motivations for Cullen's actions. Instead, he lays bare the human toll, including moments with two men whose existences are ripped apart thanks to trips with loved ones to the wrong hospital at the wrong time. Taking cues from the likes of Spotlight, Lindholm also exposes the system that enables such atrocities. Of course, swap nurses for doctors and viewers of Dr Death will feel like they're in familiar terrain, although that also helps make The Good Nurse more upsetting — knowing there are other true tales like this can only heighten the discomfort.