Films about real-life serial killers usually break down into two distinct groups. There are those that exploit the original story for lurid shock effect and have no real interest in looking for answers. Then there are those that are prepared to delve a little deeper into the circumstances surrounding a series of events. The Good Nurse, directed by Tobias Lindholm, definitely belongs in the latter category. There’s no mistaking the fact that the screenplay – written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns (and based on the book by Charles Graeber) is much more interested in the motivation than the crimes themselves.
The film focuses primarily on the nurse of the title. She’s Amy Laughren (Jessica Chastain), a single mom, struggling to balance her punishing work schedule at a New Jersey hospital with looking after her two young daughters – and she’s suffering from a debilitating heart condition. Put simply, Amy cannot afford to take time off work because she’s not been in her current post long enough to qualify for health insurance. She needs to keep going for another year, if she can.
And then along comes new recruit, Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne), a likeable and considerate workmate, who quickly guesses at Amy’s health issues and does his best to help her out, appearing to care deeply about her difficult situation. The two of them quickly become close friends, with Charlie even helping to look after Amy’s daughters, Maya (Evan McDowell) and Alex (Alix West Lefler), when the going gets particularly tough.
But then there are some unexplained fatalities on the hospital ward, and two investigators, Tim Braun (Noah Emmerich) and Danny Baldwin (Mnmandi Asomugha), show up, asking some worrying questions. Why has Charlie Cullen been repeatedly shunted from hospital to hospital over his long career? Why does he always leave after a spike in deaths? And why do his former employers always seem so reluctant to pursue any questions about him?
This is another true crime story that boggles the mind: The Good Nurse doesn’t hesitate to point the finger of accusation at the American health care system, identifying it as a major enabler of Cullen’s exploits. Indeed, it’s the main reason why a man responsible for one of the highest murder tolls in history remains, ironically, a name that few people are familiar with. Essentially a taut two-hander, the film is as compelling as it is baffling. Chastain is terrific as Laughren, torn between her genuine friendship with Cullen and the dawning realisation that he is not the affable fellow he appears to be. Redmayne keeps his performance understated, only unleashing the full force of his character’s anger in one confrontational interview, yet he still manages to convey the frightening creature that hides behind that bland, smiling exterior.
We still don’t know – and probably never will – what motivated Cullen’s apparently random acts of murder, but The Good Nurse is unflinching in its portrayal of a health system motivated by profit and with scant regard for those who depend upon it for their survival.