How many “angel of death” stories have we heard about? If you’re a true crime enthusiast, chances are you’ve been horrified by many of them. An angel of death is usually a caretaker who preys on defenseless, unsuspecting victims. Tobias Lindholm’s The Good Nurse is based on one of these cases, the true story of Charles Cullen, who was anything but a good nurse. Ultimately convicted of dozens of patient deaths, some estimates are that he may have actually killed more than 400, making him the most prolific serial killer in history. Jeffrey Dahmer, who?
The Good Nurse isn’t all about Charlie (Eddie Redmayne), however. It’s about his opposite, nurse Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain), who has the deck stacked against her in multiple ways but never sinks to Charlie’s depths. A single mother working the night shift, meaning she sees little of her two daughters, Amy is also struggling with heart disease and needs to keep working long enough for health insurance to kick in. Still, she’s as compassionate as a person in her occupation should be, recognizing all too well the hardship many of them are enduring. She might not have been able to keep it together if it weren’t for Charlie, a new arrival from another hospital. They become fast friends, with him fitting perfectly into her life and promising to help her make it until she can get the treatment she needs.
This is the complex story at the heart of The Good Nurse. Amy’s relationship to Charlie, who she has only known as a friend, and fails to suspect when patients suddenly start dying. The film is based on Charles Graeber’s book, but adapted for the screen by 1917 scribe Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who centers it around Amy’s home life. There, we see the normally sullen Charlie fit in like a glove. He seems to open up when around Amy’s daughters, helping the rebellious older daughter with a school play. Like so many serial killer stories, there’s a duality at play; a cold-blooded killer hiding in plain sight behind the veneer of normalcy.
Charlie might be a murderer, but he’s hardly the only monster. Perhaps the most heinous crimes are committed by the hospitals themselves, who knew they had a killer in their midst but did nothing to stop him. Similar to the Catholic Church, the hospital administrators, represented here by the great Kim Dickens, simply shuffle Cullen around and make him someone else’s problem. When a pair of investigators (played by Nnamdi Asamougha and Noah Emmerich) begin looking into Charlie, they are roadblocked by a system Hellbent on covering its own ass. The most galling lesson imparted by The Good Nurse is that Charlie could’ve been stopped in the early stages.
Redmayne’s performance as Charlie is scary for how calm and natural it is. Charlie has deep-rooted emotional problems that he seems able to shed the way a skin sheds its skin. He becomes a pillar of strength for Amy both at work and at home. But he also slinks into the shadows and becomes invisible, part of the window dressing, when things start to get a little out of control. His modus operandi for killing is also ingenious, and something that allowed him to trick the healthcare system and keep his hands clean.
Theoretically, Charlie could’ve gotten away with his murders forever if the cops didn’t get a lot of help from Amy. Chastain has the less showy role, but it’s the more complicated one. She plays Amy, not as a blind fool ala Lois Lane, but as someone who was in desperate need for a miracle and got it in Charlie. She didn’t want to look deeper because to look deeper might be to find out something she couldn’t afford to learn, and to learn it could cost her family.
Lindholm follows in the tradition of other Danish filmmakers, seen in some of his previous films such as A Hijacking, The Hunt, and most recently Another Round, keeps the audience at a distance as much as possible. Chastain is still able to bring you into caring for Amy and her family, but there’s a noticeable chill and feeling of unease that adds to the horror of Charlie’s crimes.
The Good Nurse isn’t a film that’s seeking to explain who Charlie Cullen is or why he did the things he does, and it’s better for it. Knowing that monsters like him exist in the real world is unnerving enough. Netflix has a documentary on Cullen arriving in November and that will be the place to go for further insights into the mind of a true madman.
The Good Nurse will play in select theaters on October 19th, followed by Netflix streaming on October 26th.