The current state of the American healthcare system is grim. Hospital bills pile up in sync with insurance companies jacking up premiums and lowering coverage. Plenty of people avoid the doctor years because the visit cost is too high. Getting sick in America can be akin to a death sentence. Tobias Lindholm’s The Good Nurse is a sobering look at the growing cracks in this system on the brink of collapse. Based on the true crimes of serial killer Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne), The Good Nurse chronicles Cullen’s last moments before his arrest and conviction for killing several patients across 16 years, two states, and nine hospitals. Despite several of those hospitals raising suspicions about Cullen’s actions, it took fellow nurse Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain) blowing the whistle before Cullen was apprehended.
This is not your run-of-the-mill, true-crime-exploitation look into the mind of a killer. Instead, The Good Nurse (along with This is Going to Hurt, another 2022 medical drama uninterested in genre stereotypes) casts a harsh light on the social structures that come into play in a case like this. That shift is intentional. For nearly two full decades and despite being suspected of ultimately killing over 400 patients, Cullen still managed to (allegedly) fly under the radar. What remains at the core of his crimes is a lack of accountability from the hospital executives who turned a blind eye to an unfathomable number of red flags. Even more insidious is these executives and their industry’s prioritization of profit above the medical care they ostensibly exist to provide.
The Good Nurse‘s specific retelling of this particular true crime is a far more pressing issue. Lindholm’s film doesn’t prioritize the morbidity of Cullen’s kills or the killer himself; instead, it shines a light on the system that, by looking the other way, inadvertently protected him. While Cullen moved through the health care system killing patients, Loughren counted the days before she could get on a transplant list for a new heart. Because her insurance benefits – without which Loughren could never have afforded the care – wouldn’t begin until she’d worked at the hospital for a specific amount of time, every day could very well have been her last.
Most of The Good Nurse is grounded in Chastain’s and Redmayne’s portrayals. It’s visually muted and thus leans into Chastain’s heartbreaking performance as an underpaid, overworked night nurse and the single mother of two girls. Chastain brings pathos to a character who could have otherwise seemed one-dimensional next to its real-life counterpart. It’s often the case that reinterpretations of real-life events or people become overly exaggerated – parodies of their own lives reflected back upon them. Chastain, far from making a caricature of Amy Loughren, emphasizes the rough edges of a woman on the brink of death from her heart condition and who’s barely making ends meet but who still gets up to braid her daughter’s hair before school. Loughren’s outcome is different from those of Cullen’s victims, but she’s just as much a victim of the system for which she’s giving her own life.
As for Redmayne, there’s a gentle tenor to his darkness. His performance is neither an exaggerated recreation of Cullen nor an exact replica. Redmayne reveals his character with a soft unfurling that gets under your skin. He concedes most of the spotlight to Chastain’s performance, intentionally so. The Good Nurse is not about Cullen. (Not entirely.) Redmayne plays to Chastain’s deepest vulnerability, matching her in tenor but always holding back, always tapping into the tension underlying his character. Redmayne’s true versatility as an actor on both screen and stage shines in this film, and he and Chastain complement one another in ways that balance each of their performances out.
In The Good Nurse‘s final scene, after Cullen is under arrest and Loughren helps the police coax a confession out of him, both Redmayne and Chastain are so in tune with one another that the lines blur. The moment becomes a channeling of humanity for both of these characters, one that unsettles the mind. Chastain brings sincerity to Loughren’s sadness in finding out the person Cullen really is, to her heartbreak at the shattering of a friendship that genuinely helped Loughren cope while dealing with the loneliness of desperation. There’s also an air of uncertainty lurking within Cullen’s inability to provide a motive for the killings. The pair’s provocative performances do the near-impossible in carrying a film that otherwise could have easily become underwhelming and exploitative.
Overall, The Good Nurse is a strong retelling of events that came to light in 2003. With a tight script and strong performances by both Redmayne and Chastain, the film tries to honor the lives of Charlie Cullen to contextualize a healthcare system that still lacks empathy and morality. It would be inauthentic to call The Good Nurse a psychological thriller when, in truth, it’s a sad display of our crumbling structures. The film foregoes delving into the sick mind of a killer in favor of exploring a sadly broken system that was never created to protect and heal.