Tobias Lindholm’s The Good Nurse is inspired by the real-life crimes of Charles Cullen, who confessed to murdering up to 40 patients while working at various hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania during his 16-year nursing career. (It’s estimated that he may have been responsible for several hundred more deaths.) The film clearly wants to get into the mind of the serial killer—and it doesn’t let you forget that ambition. When we first glimpse Charlie (Eddie Redmayne), standing by while doctors frantically try to save a flatlining patient, it’s apparent that something isn’t right with him, beginning with that only-in-the-movies pursed-lip menace.
Lindholm’s camera remains fixed on Charlie through this initial chaos, as the nurse marginally feigns concern but mostly just stares coldly at what’s occurring before him him. This is the film’s modus operandi throughout, with Charlie skulking down hospital corridors after hours and staring into the rooms of patients with the soullessness we might ascribe to, well, a serial killer.
That would not appear to be obvious to everyone, because upon starting a new position at one New Jersey hospital, he readily makes a friend in fellow nurse Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain). Amy, who cares deeply for the patients she presides over, is a struggling single mother with a serious health problem of her own, and as such she’s at her wit’s end, in large part because the hospital is frequently understaffed as a result of budget cutbacks. When Charlie arrives on the scene, she’s mostly just happy to have an extra body to help out. You could say that she’s too distracted to notice the monster hiding in plain sight.
Within no time, a number of supposedly recovering patients suddenly begin dying and it’s a wonder that the finger isn’t immediately pointed at the outwardly suspicious Charlie. But the bizarre disinterest in Charlie as a potential suspect turns out to be somewhat by design. In reality, rumours about Cullen’s misdeeds circulated for years throughout the hospitals he worked at, with the failure to investigate him pointing to a larger bureaucratic cover-up.
The Good Nurse broaches this aspect through the subplot of two local homicide cops, Danny Baldwin (Nnamdi Asomugha) and Tim Braun (Noah Emmerich), investigating the case. While it’s unclear whether the hospital is playing a part in Charlie’s crimes, it’s apparent that the deaths aren’t a matter of concern to the powers that be—like the hospital director played by Kim Dickens—who see them as a cost-saving measure. This brings a jolt of social commentary to The Good Nurse, and Lindholm, who shrewdly examined institutional failure and injustice in A Hijacking and A War, seems perfectly primed to tackle the material.
But that commentary is ultimately underserved, as the film is more focused on the dynamic between Amy and Charlie, a relationship that the filmmakers prove less adept at articulating than their rage at the galling cruelty of a for-profit health care system. For one, it’s hard to buy that the level-headed and über-professional Amy, regardless of all that she’s juggling in her personal life, would so openly welcome the shifty Charlie into her personal life, especially after he disturbingly rages about his ex-wife. Amy would seem oblivious to such red flags, and so she nonchalantly allows Charlie access to her home and frequently lets him babysit her kids.
Amy therefore takes forever to even acknowledge that Charlie could potentially be responsible for the mysterious deaths happening right under everyone’s noses, even when the detectives begin to approach her and ply her with damning evidence. When she eventually does start to believe, The Good Nurse then focuses on her bid at helping with the investigation, as she surreptitiously gathers evidence for the police and digs into Charlie’s past herself. While briskly paced, the film’s second half ultimately takes the form of a conventional Hollywood thriller, feeling further removed from reality as it reaches the climactic moment where Amy wears a wire when meeting up with Charlie in an attempt to get him to confess to his crimes.
For a while, the work on the part of the performers is nuanced enough to distract us from The Good Nurse’s implausibilities—at least until the climax, by which point Redmayne is raging with such histrionic flair that the film suddenly feels as if it’s completely removed from any semblance to reality. That is, the filmmakers don’t plumb this man’s darkness so much as position him as using a playbook given to him by the serial killers of movie lore, right down to the freak-out that clues us in to the fact the jig will soon be up for the man.
After closing with Charlie’s arrest and interrogation, The Good Nurse fades out to an extended post-script coda that explains Charlie’s fate and the number of deaths that were eventually pinned on him, while also finding room to briefly remind us of the various hospitals’ lack of culpability. Sadly, this last-minute information dump and the subsequent Wikipedia searching it inspires turns out to be more compelling than the majority of the film’s manufactured suspense.