A true crime film whose chilling effects are generated without a hint of the manipulation often associated with such films, Tobias Lindholm’s The good nurse watches as an experienced caregiver (Jessica Chastain) realizes that her new best friend at work (Eddie Redmayne) may be killing their patients.
That fact is at the forefront of loglines and promotional material, which is a shame, because the very fine drama works even better for someone who comes in and knows only the names of the stars and the director: such a viewer – who might guess that the “good nurse” in question is Redmayne, innocently caught up in a scandal of hospital bureaucracy – feels the drama’s heartbreak more than otherwise possible. Either way, the picture is a guaranteed English-language debut for Lindholm, a once Thomas Vinterberg collaborator and director of Danish movies a war, a hijack and R.
The good nurse
It comes down to
A gripping yet refreshingly unmanipulative true crime tragedy.
Location: Toronto International Film Festival (special presentation)
Publication date: October 19 (Netflix)
Form: Eddie Redmayne, Jessica Chastain, Nnamdi Asomugha, Kim Dickens, Malik Yoba, Alix West Lefler, Noah Emmerich
Director: Tobias Lindholm
Screenwriter: Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Rated R, 2 hours 1 minutes
Amy van Chastain, a single mother, spends her time caring for others while trying to hide her own ailment: she has a heart condition that often causes breathing difficulties; her doctor says she is in danger of dying quickly unless she gets a transplant. But despite working in a hospital, she is still several months away from qualifying for work insurance. Paying for a transplant is unthinkable unless she manages to stay on the job regardless of the pain and stress it causes.
None of Amy’s colleagues notice her problems. But new mercenary Charlie (Redmayne) does and jumps in to offer help. He gets the right medicines from the pharmacy of the hospital and covers her when needed. As the two get to know each other, he becomes a beloved and helpful part of her family. He wears cozy cardigans over his scrubs and is so attentive to the comfort and dignity of their patients that it’s hard to imagine him making a mistake, let alone doing harm on purpose.
But when one of the elderly patients on their floor dies, hospital administrators quickly close ranks and seem to know they have something big to hide, even if they’re not sure what it is. Seven weeks after the death, the company’s risk officer (Kim Dickens, Creepy Company) is forced to alert the police to the unexplained event, but continues to use internal investigations as an excuse not to tell them everything she knows. The detectives are stunned to learn that the body was cremated, so even if there is suspicion of wrongdoing, there is no case to prosecute.
Warning lights may flash for the viewer when Charlie references past jobs or cities where he lived. He complains that his ex-wife doesn’t want to let him see their children, that pettiness in the workplace has caused someone to make a false complaint about him. Redmayne brings this news as someone who omits details to avoid embarrassment, or out of modesty, who doesn’t want to be the center of attention. But rumors are starting to circulate about unexplained deaths at other hospitals that employed him.
While Lindholm keeps an eye on the peers’ friendship, Krysty Wilson-Cairns’ screenplay (based on Charles Graeber’s book) makes efficient use of procedural scenes to reveal a flaw in the liability mitigation strategies of these and other profitable hospitals. Since acknowledging their suspicions about Charlie would open the door to wrongful homicide lawsuits and perhaps more, previous employers would just quietly fire him, never say why, and never acknowledge any problem to outsiders like other potential employers. He went from job to job as a priest who raped children, injecting insulin and other clear drugs into IV bags to cause random, rapid deaths.
When Amy finally accepts this as a possibility, she is forced to play a secret agent. With no body to investigate, she has to snoop around looking for different kinds of evidence, all without scaring Charlie or letting her bosses discover she’s helping investigators. Chastain generally conveys the torment of this calmly, but a few scenes make the threat to Amy’s family so obvious that it looks like she’s about to unravel. For Redmayne, until the very end, it is only the settings and circumstances that make him threatening; he is so even in his attitude of concern and friendship, you wonder if Charlie is somehow sequestering knowledge of what he is doing, allowing him to live most of his day as the ideal nurse he seems to be.
Once the inevitable happens and Charlie has to confront the police, Redmayne avoids the clichés of psycho-murderers, showing deep and convincing pain when even forced to think about what Charlie has done. There is no “we got him!” joy to be here, especially when titles tell us how many people he killed and note how long he worked without being stopped by people with strong suspicions. If American moviegoers need more reasons to hate a healthcare system governed by the profit motive, here’s another one. But beneath the corporate suite, health workers continue to do their best—like the real Amy, the real “good nurse” from the movie, who went back to work after Charlie’s arrest and stayed there.