Tobias Lindholm is the screenwriter behind two of my very favorite movies of the last ten years, 2012’s “The Hunt” and 2020’s “Another Round”. He steps back behind the camera for the first times since 2015 to direct his English language debut, “The Good Nurse”. Though known most for his writing, Lindholm gives way to Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“1917”, “The Last Night in Soho”) who pens this thoroughly enthralling biographical crime drama that leans on the powerhouse performances from two Oscar winners.
Based on Charles Graeber’s 2013 book of the same name, this smart and surprisingly dense feature at times plays a little like a television medical procedural (and I say that as a compliment). Other times it has distinct old-school thriller vibes. It’s also biographical, telling the unsettling true-crime story of Charlie Cullen, a nurse who was confirmed to have murdered 29 patients (suspected to be as many as 400) in various hospitals over a 15-year span. Despite several suspicious incidents, hospitals chose to protect themselves rather than turning Cullen in. This allowed him to continue to find work up until a fellow nurse named Amy Loughren worked with New Jersey law enforcement to bring Cullen down.
The opening credits set a good tone. In 1996 at a Pennsylvania hospital, a nurse named Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne) steps away from a patient who suddenly codes. Doctors rush in to attempt to resuscitate. But the camera stays focused on Charlie, slowly zooming in on his face as he watches the doctors frantically try to save the patient’s life. During this disquieting single shot, Charlie’s visible concern slowly erodes into a cold stare as a doctor takes off his gloves and announces the time of death. Redmayne nails the scene, and from that moment on we no longer see him. We see Charlie Cullen.
Jumping ahead to 2003, we’re introduced to Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain), an ICU nurse at a New Jersey hospital. As the movie’s title suggests, Amy is a good nurse. She takes her job seriously and genuinely cares for her patients. She also has a serious heart condition, one that calls for a heart transplant. But she has to work at the hospital for one year before qualifying for health insurance. She has four months to go. If that wasn’t bad enough, she’s also a single mother struggling financially. She works long hours to provide for her two daughters, but with her medical bills it’s barely enough to scratch by.
Short on staff and hampered by budget cuts, the hospital hires Charlie Cullen to help the overworked night shift. Thin and slight, with sloped shoulders and dangling arms, Charlie has a quiet and unassuming presence. He’s the kind of person who easily disappears into the background. Amy shows him the ropes, and over time the two become close friends. Before long Charlie becomes a fixture in Amy’s life, driving her to work and even helping with her daughters. And after learning of her medical condition, he covers for her at the hospital, determined to see her through until she can get insured. For someone struggling like Amy, Charlie seems like a godsend. But then one of Amy’s patients unexpectedly dies, and the true-crime elements really kick in.
Led by their buttoned-up and aggressively corporate risk manager (a very good Kim Dickens), the hospital administrators immediately go into self-preservation mode, gathering what information they can and keeping it hid behind the veil of an “internal investigation”. It’s a full seven weeks after the death that they’re forced to notify the police. The two New Jersey homicide detectives assigned to investigate (Nnamdi Asomugha and Noah Emmerich) are incensed by the delay especially after learning the patient’s family has already cremated the body. No body means no autopsy which means no case.
But the hospital’s lack of promptness and obvious stonewalling only raises the suspicions of the detectives who eventually set their eyes on Charlie. But getting through the hospital bureaucracy proves to be a chore. They need someone on the inside – someone close to Charlie who could help them get the evidence the hospital is intent on hiding.
So often movies like this can wander, especially when topping two hours. But “The Good Nurse” remains compelling throughout thanks to some good behind-the-camera choices. Rather than making Charlie, his motives, and his pathology her centerpiece, Wilson-Cairns builds her story around Amy. Together with Chastain, she hooks us emotionally and adds a penetrating human layer. And Lindholm’s crisp and methodical dramatic pacing has us glued to every frame. He keeps this talky restrained thriller from ever feeling dry, and his management of tone is spot-on.
The real-life events behind “The Good Nurse” is inherently chilling, so no additives needed in that department. But it does require a specific kind of performance to pull it off. Redmayne fits the bill plus some. Everything he does lands well, from his unnerving reticence to the small hints of the monster within. Then you have Chastain, our emotional connection who grounds the story with her remarkable restraint. Both are key ingredients to fleshing out this terrifying true story that will leave you second-guessing your next hospital visit. “The Good Nurse” is out now in select theaters and streams October 26th on Netflix.