Given their propensity to go big, there’s something refreshing about seeing Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne play minor keys in Tobias Lindholm’s “The Good Nurse,” which premiered at TIFF before an October bow on Netflix. The problem is that the whole movie is a minor key. It’s as if respect for the admittedly brave protagonist of this true story was so overwhelming that the creators forgot to give their film a pulse. It’s a languid thriller, a movie that skims along the surface of issues like a hospital system that’s so broken in its overprotective state and reduces its characters to a short list of definable traits, pushing them into a thriller that has admirable restraint given the genre’s propensity to over-do projects like this one, but one shouldn’t mistake a serious, slow tonal approach for depth. I really want these two talented performers to continue to prove that they can do this kind of low-register character work. Just in a better movie.
Amy Loughren (Chastain) is a nurse at an average New Jersey hospital, trying to balance being a single mother with her high-stress job. This gets even harder when she’s diagnosed with a cardiac condition that could kill her if she doesn’t get a heart transplant in time. She keeps the diagnosis from her bosses, staying on at work because she hasn’t been there long enough to get the health insurance needed to deal with it. The heart issue adds a ticking time bomb aspect to “The Good Nurse” in that if the tension of what’s about to happen causes too high a heart rate in Amy, she could die.
She thinks the opposite is going to happen when she meets the kindly Charles Cullen (Redmayne), a new nurse who befriends Amy and offers to help her with her patients, and even with taking care of her children. At first, Charles seems like a lifesaver, a colleague who knows Amy’s secret, and wants to be there to help. Amy has no idea that the hospital, led by an icy Kim Dickens as its callous representative, has alerted the local authorities to a concerning situation involving the inexplicable death of one of Amy’s patients. With little warning, a woman coded, and an abnormal amount of insulin was found in her system. She was clearly double dosed, and the hospital really only lets the cops know so they can be prepared for any legal liability. The investigating officers, played by Noah Emmerich and Nnamdi Asomugha, start digging a little deeper and find a disturbing work history for Mr. Cullen involving nine other hospitals, all of which he left with rumors swirling. And then another one of Amy’s patients dies.
Would Charles Cullen, who it is confirmed killed at least 29 people, but the suspicion is that it may have been in the hundreds, have ever been caught without the courage of someone within the system? The truth is that the lawsuit-terrified operations that hired and fired Cullen didn’t come close to performing their moral duties, pushing a serial killer off to his next victim. And as long as that kind of business-over-ethics principle was in place, Cullen could have continued. Lindholm was clearly drawn to the hero arc of this true story, the one person who broke the pattern by helping authorities, even though she had so much to risk to do so.