This review originally ran Sept. 11, 2022, in conjunction with the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
A movie with a title like “The Good Nurse” has a lot to live up to, for one: that nurse better be good. Lucky for “The Good Nurse” and its audience, Jessica Chastain shines in a post-Oscar nail-biter as an RN investigating a string of mysterious deaths at her hospital, possibly caused by her new co-worker.
Tobias Lindholm’s “The Good Nurse” is based on a book of the same title about the serial killer Charles (or Charlie, as he prefers) Cullen, an ICU nurse who would give his patients lethal doses of insulin or digoxin while they were hospitalized. Cullen is perhaps responsible for up to 400 deaths in the New Jersey area between 1998 and 2003, and is brought to life with trembling, wincing glory by Eddie Redmayne.
Chastain, on the other hand, stars as Amy, based on Amy Loughren, a nurse at Somerset Medical Center who aided police (played here by Noah Emmerich and Nnamdi Asomugha) in investigating Cullen and eventually arresting him. As Amy, Chastain is open and warm, caring and thoughtful. She brings a natural effervescence to the character, the type of person you’d want responsible for you in your time of need.
What’s more, Amy and Charlie have genuine affection for one another, and Chastain and Redmayne are well-suited to each other. Both naturally theatrical and highly technical actors, it’s clear they both bring joy and originality to their characters, even if the film is often dour and drab (in an intentional way).
Amy is a good nurse: attentive in her job, loving towards her children, eager to please. She’s also suffering from a heart condition; blood blisters have formed on her ventricles, and she requires a heart transplant sooner than later. She’s been at Somerset for only a little more than half a year, and she needs to make it to the one-year mark in order to get health insurance that will cover the surgery. Her condition makes it tough for her to do difficult physical tasks — handle a comatose patient’s body, go up a flight of stairs — as well as handle points of anxiety, one of which is the ongoing, unexplained deaths in her workplace.
Chastain embodies Amy with the sharp earnestness that she brings many of her characters, women who demand, to some extent or another, to be taken seriously. She’s great as Amy in part because both actress and character are attentive to detail, process-driven workers who strive for a job well done.
In order for “The Good Nurse” to work, which it mostly does, the audience needs to believe that Amy and Charlie would be friends in the first place, that there is an intimacy between them that will be upended by the nature of his crimes. The film isn’t particularly shy about Charlie’s oddness — this is a character being played by Eddie Redmayne, after all — but alongside Amy, he is kind and thoughtful with his patients, curious about Amy’s life and often going above and beyond to help her out with her family. The real victim of Charlie’s crimes is not any single one of his victims, so much as it is the toll it takes on Amy.
“The Good Nurse” has the added benefit of being particularly well-crafted, with sharp pacing and plenty of quiet tenseness. This is not a splashy, or even a very violent, serial killer film. At its best, “The Good Nurse” is grim and procedural, reminiscent, perhaps, of “Spotlight” or “The Insider,” movies that veer away from the depiction of the crimes at hand, opting for the tired tedium of getting people to go on the record. The film is an apt 2003-era period piece: American flag stickers on doors and police lockers, the manual difficulty of researching a person’s past without widespread access to the Internet.
It’s also quite a sociopolitical film, as harsh on the hospital administration as it is on a man getting away with murder, if not more so. Amy’s exhausting health-insurance navigation pushes for greater access to affordable, if not free, health care, while condemning the businesses that make money keeping patients on the line. Due to strict NDAs and doctor-patient confidentiality, it took years to crack the Charlie Cullen case due to the legal restrictions that kept many mouths shut for years.
“The Good Nurse” is at its weakest when it strives for a sense of theatricality. when voices are raised or fists are slammed on tables. These searing indictments within the film often undo all of the subtlety of its gentleness and unease, shouting what’s already being said in inside voices. In a serial-killer drama, we don’t need this kind of lecturing as an audience, even if the killer in question is whispery, with poor posture.
If “The Good Nurse” is about anything, it’s about dedication and stoic compassion, rather than a headstrong sense of morality, and the film, like its protagonist, is all the better for that.
“The Good Nurse” premieres on Netflix Oct. 26.