In an era where true crime content is churned out a mile a minute, it can be hard to differentiate adaptations that exist because their stories are actually worth telling, and those that are just another desperate vie for a spot on Netflix’s venerated Top 10 list. If you’re anything like me, you’ll frequently find yourself considering hard-hitting questions about the matter, such as: Does Jeffrey Dahmer’s backstory actually deserve to be three hours longer than Sátántangó? And, perhaps more to the point: Is there a purpose to any of this output at all? But then, every so often, a movie like The Good Nurse comes out, and it feels like a breath of fresh air.
Directed by The Hunt and Another Round writer Tobias Lindholm, The Good Nurse tells the true story of Charles Cullen, a nurse and the most prolific serial killer in New Jersey history. The film centers around Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain), the titular Good Nurse: An overworked single mom who pulls all-nighters to care for sick patients in an effort to pay for her upcoming heart surgery. Enter Charles (Eddie Redmayne), a soft-spoken nurse who appears to have been sent straight from heaven to make sure Amy takes her meds and help her daughter rehearse for the school play.
But just as things are looking up for Amy, patients who came into the hospital with relatively minor injuries start mysteriously dying. Once The Good Nurse establishes that something undeniably fishy is going on, it quickly cascades into a perfect amalgam of a tense detective thriller starring dubious officers Danny Baldwin (Nnamdi Asomugha) and Tim Braun (Noah Emmerich), a gut-wrenching psychological drama, and a staggering showcase for Chastain and Redmayne, who deliver two of the finest performances of the year.
The Good Nurse is a film where almost every element works in tandem to create something both dynamic and compelling. The cops’ goose chase, for example, is well-paced and engaging enough to excuse a fair share of clunky, expositional CSI-esque dialogue. Adam Nielsen’s editing finds the perfect blend between the cops and Amy simultaneously discovering the truth about Charles, while not allowing either storyline to play out too quickly. Through this, he manages to tease suspense out to its absolute limits, like a balloon ready to burst.
And for a film about so much, The Good Nurse is refreshingly simple. Shot by Jody Lee Lipes in predominantly unassuming wide shots, the film looks like real life: Plain, shrouded in gray, undisturbed by frantic, motion-heavy segments. The screenplay, penned by detective-script veteran Krysty Wilson-Cairns, is similarly bare-bones—though dialogue is admittedly often stilted and could have used some of Lindholm’s writing flare.
But the real scene-stealers in The Good Nurse are its leads. Chastain gives one of her most empathetic performances to date as Amy, playing the character with a quiet intensity and carrying many of the film’s most potent, pivotal moments in the mere flicker of her eyes. With her subtle expressions alone, she is miraculously able to walk the emotional tightrope of fear, compassion, curiosity and doubt all at once. It is Redmayne, however, who steals the show in his first starring role in a couple of years, casually delivering the creepiest portrayal of a serial killer I’ve ever seen. From the moment we meet Charles, we know something isn’t quite right: The forced contortion of his overly welcoming smile is unnerving at best; the weary sadness hidden in his voice hints at a dark past; then there are his exhaustively attentive eyes, which lie just a little too stagnant when he receives bad news. Redmayne plays Charles with such a sense of naturalism and magnetic intensity that it’s easy to forget he’s not in the room right there with you.
More than that, though, The Good Nurse transcends the typical true-crime model, which often comes across as nothing more than a haphazard attempt to satiate audiences’ needs for shock value in the comfort of our own homes. The Good Nurse has a lot to say. Beyond its stranger-than-fiction plot (details of which I am purposefully leaving out for those who are not already familiar with the story), the film deals with a surplus of difficult issues. It is unflinching in its treatment of healthcare as an insidious matter, for example, proving that true crime can, indeed, be about more than one beast. It also considers the maddening situation of caring for someone who has done unforgivable, monstrous things, adding layers of compassion and humanness to a genre which often looks at crime through a black-and-white lens.
It’s tough to emphasize just how refreshing it is to watch The Good Nurse in an era where true crime is blindly mined for mass production like fast fashion. But this film brings thoughtfulness, depth, artistry and tour-de-force performances to the table, indicating that, when dealing with such difficult subjects, possibilities for complexity are often boundless. I won’t be overly optimistic here—The Good Nurse won’t set a new precedent for the genre. But if it did, we would be at least a little bit better off for it.
Director: Tobias Lindholm
Writer: Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Eddie Redmayne, Nnamdi Asomugha, Noah Emmerich, Kim Dickens, Malik Yoba
Release Date: October 26, 2022 (Netflix)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.