There are two villains in THE GOOD NURSE, the based on the true-crime book by Charles Graeber, and the first English-language film from Tobias Lindholm (ANOTHER ROUND, THE HUNT). One villain is the serial killer, Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne) who worked for years as a nurse killing patients while raising suspicions, but never prosecutions, at the nine hospitals at which he worked. The other one, arguably the more dangerous of the two, is the health care system that allowed him to continue undetected by law enforcement for so long. Both stories are told with a quiet precision that effectively builds the suspense of just how Charlie will be caught, and how he could have just as easily slipped away to commit more murders.
It is one of those murders that open the film. We see not the patient, nor the hospital staff rushing to the room where he is expiring. Instead, they are behind a half-opened door with Charlie standing to one side. The camera slowly dollies in as he watches calm, almost impassive as the others try to save the patient, and as his face fills the screen, there is nothing specifically wrong, and yet, there is also something not quite right in the way he is transfixed by what is happening.
Jump to seven years later and another state where Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain) is delivering nursing care to patients that is not just expert, but also enormously compassionate at her understaffed, underfunded hospital where coffee filters are rationed. There is more than a little irony in learning that while Amy is dispensing the finest care, she herself lacks the health insurance that would help her pay for the cardiac treatment she needs to stay alive. It’s a race against time, with four months before she will be eligible for that insurance and the medical leave that her cardiologist recommends. As the sole support of two children, Amy has to take her chances, and hope that the hospital won’t discover her condition and fire her as another cost-cutting measure.
Enter Charlie, the new co-worker on the overnight shift Amy works, who learns her secret when she has an episode one night, and far from turning her in, helps cover for her, while also providing the sort of emotional support she has lacked. They bond, platonically, and he becomes a part of her life and that of her two daughters, which makes the clues about why patients are suddenly dying in unreasonable numbers something that Amy wants to explain away, but ultimately can’t.
The most troubling part of the story is the element of chance that brings a patient death to the attention of the two police detectives and thereby brings the killing spree to an end. They decide to pursue an investigation despite a dearth of hard evidence, and a stonewalling from the hospital that is as bone-chilling as it is condescending. When one of those detectives (Nnamdi Asomugha) finally loses his temper with the hospital’s risk manager (Kim Dickens) smoothly handing him non-answers about inconsistencies in their report on a suspicious death. It brings down the wrath of the local government on his head, but it is a cathartic moment that can’t help but bring cheers from the audience, and a vindication for the people crushed under the metaphorical thumb of a system that worries about its bottom line, and liability, over the lives of those it purports to serve.
With a serial killer identified from the start, the story relies on the character study of its protagonists to make the emotional connection to the audience, and Chastain and Redmayne succeed admirably in a script that saves its harshest criticisms for the business of health care. Both actors emphasize their characters’ apparent ordinariness that masks their extraordinary natures. Redmayne’s Charlie is the definition of non-threatening. He is pleasant and dull, with a discordant note of bitterness when speaking of his ex-wife and the custody battles he has with her over his own two children. He is the psychopath next door, and it’s only when the police contact Amy that we see through her eyes how deeply disturbing that veneer when viewed through a paradigm shift. Chastain is magnificent. The struggle to defy hospital orders to assist the police, hoping against hope that her heart will be just strong enough to wait four months, the anguish at not being there for her daughters as much as she would like, it’s the thrum under her performance, and summed up in one silent scene where she sits in her car, tears rolling down her face. Amy is allowing herself those few moments of despair, yet the heroism and strength as she briskly wipes away those tears before getting on with what needs to be done is awe-inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time.
Deliberately non-lurid, using a synth score and pale color palette coupled with subtle shifts in camera focus and sudden shifts in its movement, THE GOOD NURSE is an absorbing cat-and-mouse thriller without the comfort of unreality to insulate us from the action. It’s designed to raise umbrage (and more) as well as tell its story, it’s a powerful emotional thriller.