Charles Cullen was a good nurse.
That is precisely what makes Tobias Lindholm’s first American feature so chilling. Based on a true story, The Good Nurse follows overworked nurse Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain) as she assists the police in catching Charles ‘Charlie’ Cullen (Eddie Redmayne): friend and colleague to Amy, and terrifying serial killer. The film plays with what is seen and what is not, both physically and metaphorically, ultimately begging the question of why we trust people and if we can truly trust anyone. It toes the line between drama and thriller, with stand-out sequences of pure intensity that punctuate the slow unfolding of the story before building to a horrifying conclusion that refuses us satisfying answers and poses questions of accountability, particularly on behalf of the institutions that consistently failed Cullen’s victims.
The opening scene perfectly encapsulates the idea of what lies beneath the surface and the things we may not know about other people. A slow zoom in on the ambivalent expression of Cullen, accompanied by an intense score and the chaotic sounds of doctors struggling to save a patient, creates an unnerving introduction and a taste for the sinister that does not reappear until much later in the film. At this point, all we know is that Cullen is a ‘good nurse’: he did his job in informing the doctors that the patient was going into distress. Redmayne sustains this performance-in-performance excellently as we are driven to question exactly how a humble, kind man would be capable of such unimaginable cruelty. For most of the film, he retains his facade, as we are positioned to empathise with Amy and to understand the impossibility of deciphering that Cullen was not who he said he was. The moments where he breaks are chilling as he flicks between personalities in a Jekyll and Hyde fashion, with uncanny consequences.
From her first moments on screen till the very end, Amy is unwaveringly sympathetic. This is down to her compassionate character and determination in the face of hardship; it is truly fascinating to watch her go on in the face of everything that is thrown at her and Chastain balances this weariness with Amy’s need to be composed and friendly in front of patients. Lindholm described Amy as a real-life superhero and, while this can be said of what she achieved, her perspective serves a greater purpose in the film which is to question the nature of ‘good’, of trust, and to convey the truly difficult feat in which she had to go against what she perceived to be true. As a ‘real’ superhero film, The Good Nurse is bleak; in spite of the light and goodness within Amy, her surroundings are morose and sullen. The world of the film adopts a greyness as our protagonist attempts to make it through each day of misery and loss. There are occasional scenes of warmth, moments of solace for Amy, when she befriends Charlie and he lends her a helping hand with her problems, but these are underscored by looming dread as we anticipate the revelation of his true colours.
Cullen isn’t the only ‘villain’ of the film, or the only one who lets Amy down because the film does important work to emphasise the neglect on behalf of the hospitals and institutions associated with them. Hospital lawyers and representatives are depicted as solely concerned with image and avoiding scandal. There is an emphasis on the collective effort of the hospitals Cullen had worked for in letting him get away with as much as he did, allowing for a more nuanced antagonistic presence as we are left to negotiate the extent to which the institutions and Cullen are responsible for the losses that ensued. Even prior to knowing Charlie, Amy was being let down by ‘the system’ in her inability to obtain medical insurance until she had worked for the hospital for a year, coupled with her cardiomyopathy that is worsened by her strenuous workload due to understaffing. This network of failure on behalf of the system underscores the intense serial killer narrative, excellently grounding the film in the harshness of reality rather than sensationalising it as a one-off event.
The pacing does suffer a little due to the film’s duty to remain faithful to the real course of events. It is a slow burn which, for the most part, works well but it drags at points and it does occasionally veer toward the realm of procedural crime drama. However, the lead performances elevate the film and ensure the audience’s investment until the very end. I think it succeeds in conveying important messages that will allow its legacy to exist beyond the story it is based on. The story truly does leave you to question whether you actually know someone even if you trust them on a personal level, and whether the institutions built to protect us were ever on our side.
The Good Nurse will be released on Netflix on October 26th.
Edited by Lydia Leung, Film & TV Head Editor