Producers: Scott Franklin, Darren Aronofsky and Michael A. Jackman Director: Tobias Lindholm Screenplay: Krysty Wilson-Cairns Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Jessica Chastain, Nnamdi Asomugha, Noah Emmerich, Kim Dickens, Malik Yoba, Alix West Lefler, Devyn McDowell, Judith Delgado, Jesus-Papoleto Melendez and Marcia Jean Kurtz Distributor: Netflix
Top-flight talent on both sides of the camera tells a conventional true-crime story in this Netflix docu-drama. “The Good Nurse” is a solid, respectable piece of work, with a creepily effective performance by Eddie Redmayne, but it doesn’t stand out in this now-crowded genre.
Redmayne plays Charles Cullen, a nurse who was convicted in 2006 of killing nearly thirty patients in Pennsylvania and New Jersey hospitals through drug injections, but is suspected of having murdered hundreds more from the late eighties on. Co-star Jessica Chastain is Amy Loughren, Cullen’s colleague in the ICU of Somerset Medical Center who befriended him there but, after becoming suspicious of him in a number of recent patient deaths, cooperated with police investigators to bring him to justice.
The first English-language film by Danish screenwriter and director Tobias Lindholm, “Nurse” was adapted from Charles Graeber’s 2013 book on the case by Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who used some creative license to ramp up the tension. It’s understandable that the script fictionalizes the identities of Cullen’s victims at Somerset—though the fictionalized versions, like Ana Martinez (Judith Delgado) and her grieving husband Sam (Jesus-Papoleto Melendez) aren’t given much depth, her exhumation shown in greater detail than her suffering. It’s also laudable that it doesn’t underplay the dogged work of police detectives Danny Baldwin (Nnamdi Asomugha) and Tim Braun (Noah Emmerich) in cracking the case.
The film does, however, overplay certain elements to heighten dramatic effect. It’s unquestionable that various hospitals that became concerned about Cullen over the course of his dark career chose, for reasons of financial liability and potential bad publicity, to sweep their misgivings under the carpet, allowing him to secure employment elsewhere. That policy—not unlike the Catholic Church’s transfer of pedophile priests to other parishes—is embodied here in the person of Somerset administrator Linda Garran (Kim Dickens), who, out of fear of risk to the institution, is portrayed as actually impeding the police investigation. The desire for socio-economic commentary is praiseworthy, but it’s done with a dramatic bludgeon rather than a scalpel, not only in the depiction of Garran, but in a conversation Loughren has with Jackie (Marcia Jean Kurtz), a former co-worker, who’s free in disclosing rumors about Cullen that circulated during his tenure at another hospital.
The personal situation of Loughren, moreover, comes in for a bit of exaggeration. The nurse did suffer from cardiomyopathy, which she desired to keep secret from the hospital. But the screenplay elevates that into a pressing need for a heart transplant, and emphasizes that she must keep working for another four months to secure the insurance that would cover the cost—leading to the development of a closer relationship with Cullen, to whom she confesses her condition, and his increasing importance in the lives of her daughters Alex and Maya (Alix West Lefler and Devyn McDowell, respectively). The use of the “four month” timetable as a sort of count-down mechanism to create a sense of desperation is a dramatic contrivance (as is the entire transplant subplot, since Loughren’s condition ultimately didn’t require one), the issue of insurance apparently wasn’t crucial, and the degree of Cullen’s involvement with Amy’s daughters is substantially overstated (and, at one point, employed for a crude shock moment).
Taken together, all of this pushes “The Good Nurse” in the direction of a LifeTime-type movie, yet it has considerable strengths. Lindholm brings the cool, almost antiseptic atmosphere familiar from his Danish work to bear, and his collaborators—production designer Shane Valentino, costumer Amy Westcott, composer Biosphere, editor Adam Nielsen and particularly cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes—add to the stark, grey mood. Chastain makes Loughren’s mixed emotions about suspecting—and then turning on—a man she’d come to like and depend on, while wrestling with her own personal crisis—credible. The supporting cast is strong down the line.
And, most importantly, in Redmayne’s skilled hands Cullen becomes a frighteningly unstable character, at once shyly charming, vaguely menacing and suffering from his own domestic difficulties (only slightingly alluded to)—qualities the actor captures from the very start in a cunningly fashioned scene in which Cullen stands enigmatically watching as a medical team tries, offscreen, to revive one of his victims; Lindholm’s staging here, and Redmayne’s eerie composure, make for a truly chilling tableau. It’s a quietly sinister persona he manages to sustain to throughout most of the film, until he rages when discovered at the very end before calming down under Amy’s soothing influence.
Of course the film can’t explain what made Cullen commit such horrors; imprisoned for eleven consecutive life sentences, he’s never coherently explained his motivations himself. Perhaps he can’t, and so one shouldn’t blame the filmmakers for their failure to clarify what drove him. Yet as is so often the case with such true-crime tales, even one done with such a high level of craftsmanship as this, we’re simply left with the message that such things are inexplicable, and that the institutional forces that allow them to happen are never held accountable. That dramatizations of these stories have become so popular is a commentary on the bleakness of the world-view that’s come to dominate society today—a sense of futility in the face of pervasive crime and corruption.
Still, you can be certain that as long as we keep voyeuristically watching them, more such stories are bound to come. At least this one allows us to salute some good work from the actors and crew, even if in the end that’s not quite enough.