Great, terrific, swell, there's a whole new thing to worry about. Used to be you'd fret that some injury or disease would land you in the hospital — but what if the hospital itself tried to kill you?
This new addition to your personal paranoia pack comes via director Tobias Lindholm (A Highjacking, Another Round), lead actors Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne, and the streaming service that seems to love true crime more than all the others, Netflix. The Good Nurse, a tense and effective suspense film, tells the story of Charles Cullen, who, if some theories are to be believed, is the most prolific serial killer in history.
Yes, the platform that currently boasts two dueling Jeffrey Dahmer series tapped the main vein with this one, and even if Cullen's name isn't quite so well known, his methods and motives are perhaps the most sickening. When people were at the their most vulnerable — convalescing in an intensive care ward — Cullen, a nurse, would slip dangerous medication into their drip IV bags, killing them in plain sight of their baffled medical team. Why, you ask? Nobody really knows!
Cullen (Redmayne) is not the "good" nurse of the title. That would be Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain), a real person, who was the one who helped law enforcement stop Cullen. She was not, however, the first to notice that something was up about the guy. As shocking as it may sound, when a hospital grew suspicious about Cullen, rather than risk exposure to lawsuits, they would find an excuse to fire him and let some other hospital worry about it. Everyone just stayed quiet in a field where one takes an oath to "first, do no harm."
This pass-the-buck conspiracy, similar to the crimes exposed in the film Spotlight, really angers up the blood. Nnamdi Asomugha (so, so good in the movie Sylvie's Love) and Noah Emmerich are excellent as the detectives who won't accept a bureaucratic stonewall, but Chastain is in typically fine form as the single mother of two who must choose between her career and doing the right thing. The added spin, and get ready for this, is that Amy's life depends on keeping her job. She needs a life-saving surgery, and her health insurance doesn't kick in until she's been working a full year. Yes, read that again — a night shift ICU nurse has no access to health care in America's whacked-out system. (Yes, yes, many countries with nationalized health care have their own slew of problems, but nothing touches this for irony.)
Lindholm effortlessly teases the story along as a series of ever-tightening vise grips. It's engrossing, but a little agonizing. (To that end, watching on streaming has its benefits to the theater; you can sigh loudly all you want right there on the couch.)
None of this would work without a fantastic villain performance, and Eddie Redmayne is spectacular. After a short prologue, in which Lindholm keeps Charlie in the frame as a patient/victim "codes out," he enters the story as a hero. Amy's hospital is underfunded and understaffed and is thrilled someone new is coming to work overnights. Redmayne's mild demeanor, with a thin, friendly voice, exudes "nice guy." (On a personal level, he reminded me an awful lot of this fella I don't talk to enough, who is one of the kindest people I know; I mention this because I firmly believe "there's one in every crowd," and you have a guy like that in your life, too.)
But here's where Redmayne and Lindholm get really smart. When Amy and the cops start to suspect, and then become sure, that Charlie is a deranged killer, Redmayne does not tweak his performance. He's the same affable fella. But because the movie knows, we see him through a different lens. As an actor, Redmayne is doing the same thing in his 28th scene as he is in his third, but because of this, he is infinitely more sinister. If he started twirling his mustache and glowering, it wouldn't work half as much, but not every actor has the kind of chops to restrain themselves.
This all goes out the window, however, for the last few scenes, which are absolutely terrifying. There's nothing else to call it but damn good acting. Redmayne recently won the Oscar (for The Theory of Everything), but for my money this is the much better performance.
The Good Nurse does not reinvent cinema, but it is a strong movie, and one that lingered in my head for days. (This is a major victory; there's a lot of material piping into our homes nonstop.) I certainly feel better knowing Charles Cullen is behind bars, but am furious that "the system" got away with it. But at least now the scariest thing about a hospital visit is usually the bill.
Premieres: Wednesday, Oct. 26 on Netflix
Who's in it: Jessica Chastain, Eddie Redmayne, Nnamdi Asomugha, Noah Emmerich, Kim Dickens
Who's behind it: Tobias Lindholm (director), Krysty Wilson-Cairns (screenwriter)
For fans of: True crime, chilling medical dramas