A story like the one in The Good Nurse comes ready-made with plenty of drama. Netflix‘s new film is based on true events, events that sometimes stretch beyond the dramatic into thriller territory. This results in quite a good film.
In 2003, nurse Charles Cullen was arrested and confessed to the murder of 29 people during his 15-year career. Authorities estimate the true number of victims to be around 400, making Cullen the most prolific serial killer in American history. Amy Loughren, another nurse who worked with Cullen, assisted police in apprehending him. Cullen and Loughren had developed a friendship, so the situation was even more tense.
The Good Nurse dramatizes this true-crime story with a mostly-effective blend of procedural momentum and personal stakes.
“I still need you.”
Those personal stakes come from more than one source. First, you have the relationship between Loughren and Cullen. Amy (played by Jessica Chastain) is a single mom with two little girls. She also suffers from a serious heart ailment– cardiomyopathy. (The same thing Barbara Hershey’s character had in Beaches.) Amy is struggling through the symptoms until her health insurance kicks in. Given that she is a nurse in an ICU, this isn’t easy. Then Cullen (played by Eddie Redmayne) is hired at the hospital. He is so helpful that Amy feels her stress start to lessen.
Second, you have the impact of Cullen’s victims on the audience. As the recent series about Jeffrey Dahmer (also on Netflix) shows, the sensitive treatment of this situation is tricky. This film handles it well. The script focuses on two people, allowing Amy to have interactions with them before Cullen’s actions lead to their deaths. We get to know them and the people who love them. This helps convey the full scope of Cullen’s crimes. It keeps the viewer from forgetting the real human beings behind this story. Because Cullen injected toxic doses of insulin and digoxin into saline bags which other nurses then used, the sheer number of victims could’ve been overwhelming. The spotlight on two of them was an efficient choice.
“You know exactly what you’re doing.”
Another successful choice by the filmmakers was the casting. Chastain and Redmayne are two Oscar winners who have each won for playing real-life people. Chastain’s emotional transparency works well for her character here, just as Redmayne’s offbeat mannerisms suit his character. The actors’ scenes together are strong, and director Tobias Lindholme makes use of close-ups to draw out the best of their performances. I enjoyed veteran actor Noah Emmerich and former pro football player Nnamdi Asomugha as the detectives investigating Cullen as well.
Lindholme’s superb directorial style is an incredible match for this story. The use of framing and blocking in certain sequences, especially after Amy learns what Cullen has done, emphasizes the tension wonderfully. Even though the same style in other moments lends a touch of emotional remoteness. That’s something that doesn’t present all the writing in the best light. You don’t want the words “cold” or “removed” to come up when the audience describes the film.
After all, the true events here are disturbing so a bit of warmth in the tone provides a more satisfying viewing experience. And, in general, that’s what The Good Nurse is.
The Good Nurse is now streaming on Netflix.