Efficient yet gentle, a hospital nurse hooks up an IV bag of medication for an older woman, something to soothe the allergic reaction she’s having. The woman’s spouse nuzzles his head close to hers as her eyes close, resting.
So much trust—about the nurse, their skills, and what’s in that bag. That’s ultimately what makes the Netflix crime drama The Good Nurse so unsettling.
Based on Charles Graeber’s book of the same name, The Good Nurse dramatizes the discovery and capture of Charles Cullen, a nurse in Pennsylvania and New Jersey who in the early 2000s pleaded guilty to killing 29 patients. Authorities suspect he killed as many as 400 people, shuttling from one facility to another.
For a true crime tale, The Good Nurse lacks the verisimilitude of investigative details, such as the town names where Cullen works or even what agency picks up his trail. One detective says he’s from “homicide in the county prosecutor’s office over in New Jersey.” A phone call to another jurisdiction yields a folder about Cullen while the detective is on the line, a helpful sticky note about a prescription drug tacked to the front. Viewers who know the true crime genre (or a former cops reporter, like me) will be tempted at such moments to roll their eyes.
But the filmmakers don’t have a standard police procedural in mind. The Good Nurse is more about trust in people and a system that repeatedly failed—and it’s an intimate two-hander between stars Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain.
Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) plays Amy Loughren, a real-life New Jersey nurse and single mom on the night shift who learns the first names of her patients, such as the elderly woman and her spouse whom she teases about being newlyweds. Amy also has a secret: cardiomyopathy, a chronic heart disease that requires a transplant. Her health insurance won’t kick in for a few months, so she steals away moments to catch her breath on a stretcher in the dark or sitting on the floor of the supply room.
New hire Charlie Cullen (Redmayne, The Trial of the Chicago 7) finds her in one of these moments. He places a hand on her shoulder, talking her through calm breathing, and says that he’ll help her hang in there. No question. One professional caring for another.
Director Tobias Lindholm (Mindhunter, The Investigation) and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (Manchester by the Sea) use a muted palette of blues, grays, and greens, building this friendship and in close-ups and medium close-ups. Screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Last Night in Soho) adds their confidences, peppering details such as Charlie coaching Amy’s daughter through her lines for a school play or declaring as he drives Amy to work that she’ll get the care she needs to be with her girls. He seems like such a good soul, meticulously cleaning a patient who’s died after coding so their loved ones can see them, and Redmayne, so earnest and shy as the creature-protecting wizard in the Fantastic Beasts films, gives him an easygoing openness that flickers away at the barest of moments.
The drama stems from Amy being both investigator and whistleblower, a formidable spirit well within Chastain’s wheelhouse. When detectives check into one patient’s death at the behest of the Department of Health, the risk management rep and hospital attorney stonewall them. Meanwhile, Amy discovers too much insulin in the deceased’s bloodstream—and rumors about her trusted friend lacing the IV saline bags. Insulin can be a lifesaver, unless you don’t need it. Then it’s deadly.
Although the detectives’ impotence and the hospital’s negligence stretch credibility, The Good Nurse reminds us that the real Cullen knocked around with a nursing license for sixteen years. While short on connective details, the film nevertheless builds suspense as Amy’s discovery taxes her health and Charlie insists on helping her.
What makes The Good Nurse so chilling is that among these heroes we’ve recently applauded for their selfless service was a person who exploited that position of trust. His motivation here is nothing personal, just a luck of the draw. But for a nurse like Amy, that personal touch is everything.