We’re all collectively intrigued, obsessed even, by serial killers. Why? Is it because we’re somehow ashamed that these people are right under our noses? We’re scared of how they’re able to masquerade as normal people when in fact, they’re monstrous. Or maybe we’re fascinated by the mechanics of it all, the balance between normalcy and murder.
Tobias Lindholm’s The Good Nurse partly abandons that fascination. Telling the true story of serial killer nurse Charles Cullen, Lindholm and screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns reframe the narrative from the point of view of Amy Loughren, the real nurse who was integral to stopping Cullen.
Amy (Jessica Chastain) is a single mother of two and working mostly nights at the local hospital. They’re understaffed and underfunded, so when experienced nurse Charlie (Eddie Redmayne) is hired and consequently proves to be a valuable asset, Amy is relieved – especially as she is suffering from a potentially fatal heart defect but she’s not eligible for healthcare from her job for a few months still. Charlie helps Amy get through tough shifts and covers for her when she needs a moment to steady her breathing and heart rate.
But suddenly patients start turning up dead. Amy refuses to believe Charlie has anything to do with it, but soon begins to notice something strange with her new friend.
The narrative of The Good Nurse is old-fashioned, to a fault. There’s something distinctly, and delightfully, 90s about its aesthetic and genre tropes. It’s modelled after a thriller, but Lindholm tries to make it into a serious drama. The Good Nurse works best when it leans into the suspense.
Lindholm also effectively inserts a commentary about the US healthcare system into the film. Amy’s situation is dire: she’s unable to afford healthcare as a healthcare professional with a fatal heart disease, caring for others, but unable to get care for herself. While The Good Nurse is never a film about the unfair system, it’s an important part of the narrative.
More attention is brought to the fact that Cullen was able to work in several hospitals, all of which had suspicions about him after patients started dying, but not one hospital did anything about it. They simply allowed him to move on and continue his killing spree.
Cinematically, Cullen’s crimes aren’t very interesting. Violence in films often relies on the spectacle of it, but here there is none. Cullen’s method – spiking random IV bags – is admittedly a dull one in terms of visual storytelling, but Lindholm wisely banks everything on the mood of the film.
That mood is greatly helped by a creepy performance from Eddie Redmayne. The role of Charlie Cullen feels different and new compared to Redmayne’s previous ones. It’s still another quiet, awkward character for Redmayne to play, but whereas he’s often turned that inherent awkwardness into charm, here it becomes the primary source of terror.
Jessica Chastain is also very good, if a little dramatically plain in a role that feels less unique and compelling than everyone else in the film. Kim Dickens has a surprisingly juicy role as a hospital administrator trying to navigate the situation. Lindholm directs all the action with a steady hand and while The Good Nurse never really soars, it’s a fine, classy addition to the ever-growing genre of serial killer films.
The Good Nurse is in cinemas now and streaming on Netflix October 26.