By Lynn Venhaus
Ah, risk management, the American medical system and a litigious society are focal points into a criminal investigation of mysterious patient deaths in the riveting “The Good Nurse.”
But what separates this true crime drama as more of a ‘howdunit,’ rather than a whodunit, is the way the real-life characters are humanely portrayed. Oscar winners Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) and Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”) are in top form, delivering nuanced, lived-in performances as two empathetic nurses leaning on each other. Their bond is believable and the heart of the story.
In his first English language film, director Tobias Lindholm focused on the friendship between real-life nurses Amy Loughren and Charlie Cullen who worked the demanding night shift at a New Jersey hospital in 2003.
Amy (Chastain) is a single mother struggling with a life-threatening heart condition. New employee Charlie Redmayne) starts sharing the night shift, and because he’s thoughtful and helpful, they develop a tight bond. After a couple of patients die unexpectedly, alarm bells go off.
The shy but attentive Cullen had been bouncing around several hospitals, with whispers and suspicions, but superiors – worried about lawsuits and unwanted law enforcement involvement – seemed to ‘send it on’ down the road (not unlike the Catholic Church dioceses, we learned when the pedophile priest scandals blew wide open).
Until compassionate Amy, doing her job, helped investigators, at great personal risk. Noah Emmerich and Nnamdi Asomugha are convincing as the Newark detectives frustrated by the system’s closed doors and lack of communication. As a risk management superior, Kim Dickens is chilling — an ice-cold corporate manager whose doubt creeps in, subtly readable on her face, but she does not budge.
I was unfamiliar with Cullen’s story, which made Redmayne’s characterization even more terrifying. Dubbed “The Angel of Death” by the media after his arrest, he was a merciless monster hidden in plain sight (And also more complicated than the true-crime ‘boxes’ often used in storytelling.)
Chastain deftly conveyed Amy’s growing concern over her friend being the prime suspect. If you are unaware of the case, it makes you think the hospital bureaucracy is hiding information and the police are targeting individuals unfairly.
Lindholm’s focus is on Amy as an ordinary hero who makes extraordinary decisions because she is a ‘good nurse.’ She’s a single mother struggling with a life-threatening heart condition, trying to do the best she can for her family’s future. Her integrity and intelligence are evident in Chastain’s shrewd performance.
It makes a resolution for the nerve-wracking mystery even more urgent.
Screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Oscar-nominated for “1917,” has smartly adapted the 2013 nonfiction book by Charles Graeber, “The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder,” which details dozens of deaths over a period of 16 years, at nine hospitals in two states. Cullen confessed to 29, but as the title cards at the end state, the real count could be hundreds.
Lindholm, who directed the Danish films “The Hunt” and “A Hijacking,” effectively builds tension. The music score by Biosphere adds to that growing unease as well.
While I’m not usually a fan of so much natural lighting, it does give the film a realistic you-are-there feel. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, who worked on “Manchester by the Sea,” created a mood through the gray days and playing with the shadows of a mundane workplace overnight, hinting at evil lurking in storage rooms and hospital beds through dim fluorescent lighting.
The film’s hushed tones and how methodically it details the steps to finally catching the killer comes together in satisfying fashion.
With its stellar cast, “The Good Nurse” succeeds as a cautionary tale by highlighting the everyday healthcare heroes doing heartfelt work. But also shows how aberrant behavior can go undetected, and lays bare the cracks in the system.
To the brave souls willing to stick their neck out for the truth, this movie’s for you.
“The Good Nurse” is a 2022 true-crime drama directed by Tobias Lindholm and starring Jessica Chastain, Eddie Redmayne, Noah Emmerich, Nnamdi Asomugha and Kim Dickens. It is rated R for language and the run time is 2 hours, 1 minute. In select theaters Oct. 19 and streaming on Netflix beginning Oct. 26. Lynn’s Grade: B+
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.