The Good Nurse tells the true story of a prolific serial killer—quite possibly the most prolific in American history—but the killer is not the villain. Rather, the villain is “the system,” the entrenched structure of procedures, principles, and tenets of self-preservation within the American medical establishment that both directly and indirectly allowed him to kill so many people over so many years. By any reckoning, the crimes of Charles Cullen should have been discovered years before they were, but instead he was shuffled from hospital to hospital, protected by his previous employers’ unwillingness to discuss their experiences and suspicions. Red flags were everywhere, but they were either ignored or misunderstood. In this sense, The Good Nurse plays like a companion film to Spotlight (2015), Tom McCarthy’s drama about The Boston Globe’s investigation of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the Church’s attempts to hide it by moving the priests to different parishes.
The protagonist and unexpected detective in The Good Nurse is Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain), a single mother and nurse in the critical care unit at Parkfield Memorial Hospital (a fictional stand-in for Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, New Jersey). She is stressed and overworked and suffers from cardiomyopathy, which she carefully hides because she knows that, if the hospital were to find out, she could very well be fired. Her life improves dramatically with the arrival of Charles Cullen (Eddie Redmayne), who is amiable and knowledgeable and has extensive experience as a critical care nurse. He is also happy and willing to take bad hours and do the hard work hospitals need of their nursing staff. He is seemingly decent and kind, which is why Amy strikes up a friendship with him and allows him into her life, to the point that he becomes close with her two daughters.
The viewer, however, already knows that something is amiss, as the film’s opening scene shows Charles at his previous hospital, silently watching while the staff tries in vain to resuscitate a dying patient. The manner in which the camera moves slowly in on his face as he watches and the unsettling music offers ample evidence that something is very wrong, but the film carefully avoids directly implicating him. In other words, The Good Nurse is a drama about a serial killer that studiously avoids showing the serial killer at work. Instead, the viewer is placed on the side of the investigators, especially two state police detectives, Danny Baldwin (Nnamdi Asomugha) and Tim Braun (Noah Emmerich), who are assigned to investigate the death of one of Charles’s patients, a seemingly healthy older woman who mysteriously crashes one night. At virtually every turn Baldwin and Braun find their investigation stymied by the hospital, particularly Linda Garran (Kim Dickens), the hospital’s risk manager—a former nurse whose job now has nothing to do with saving lives and everything to do with saving the hospital’s reputation and bottom line.
Amy becomes a central figure because she begins to suspect that Charles is somehow involved in not just the aforementioned death, but several subsequent deaths at Parkfield. Her willingness to come forward and help the detectives is no small feat, as it means betraying someone who she has come to count on as both a trusted colleague and close friend and also putting herself potentially in danger. The fine line she is already walking as a stressed single mother with a serious health condition makes it all the worse, and Chastain gives the character a real sense of steely resolve while also reminding us of just how fragile and vulnerable she is. Similarly, Redmayne makes it clear how someone like Charles could enter into the good graces of those around him and constantly skirt culpability; he makes Charles into a terrifying monster whose primary characteristic is his ultimate lack of feeling in the face of his crimes. He is clearly able to perform the role of friend and nurse, but there is a chilling void in him that Redmayne conveys with subtle gestures that later turn into a raging fit when finally confronted with what he has done.
Director Tobias Lindholm recently wrote Thomas Vinterberg’s festival hit Another Round (2020) and directed several episodes of the David Fincher-produced Netflix series Mindhunter, as well as the HBO mini-series The Investigation (2020), which is about the murder of a Swedish journalist aboard a submarine by its owner, a Danish entrepreneur. Lindholm is a natural fit for the material, as he has already worked extensively in the true-crime genre and showed an affinity for David Fincher’s brand of cool, clinical dramatization punctuated by intense moments of emotional revelation. The screenplay by Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917, Last Night in Soho) shares the structural approach of Lindholm’s The Investigation by avoiding overt depictions of the crimes and instead focusing entirely on the characters investigating them (or, in this case, trying to determine if a crime exists at all). In this way, The Good Nurse flips the serial-killer narrative on its head, making it all the more enigmatic in refusing to offer up pat assessments or easy explanations. Just as we will never know exactly how many deaths Charles Cullen caused, we will never know exactly why he did it.
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Overall Rating: (3)
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