Given our collective, at times morally dubious, bloodlust for all things true crime, one would safely assume that the story of the man considered to be the most prolific serial killer in recorded history would have already been given the podcast, documentary and miniseries treatment. But the name Charles Cullen has mostly been absent from the genre, the hows and whys of which might be somewhat explained by the intermittently effective Netflix drama The Good Nurse, a mixed bag of shock, horror and frustration.
Because telling the story of Cullen is far from easy: his crimes are scattered, his victim count unknown and his motives mysterious. The beats of his story don’t fit into the slick structure we know too well, and in this cold and surprisingly cynical film, we see the struggle of trying to make them. Between the 1990s and the 2000s, Cullen, as a nurse, killed at least 29 people but authorities believe the number to be closer to 400 – he was a silent killer who used intravenous tubes to poison patients. He’s played by Eddie Redmayne at the tail end of his killings, a new hire at a New Jersey hospital in the early 2000s. He is paired up with Amy (Jessica Chastain), a wearied single mother working night shifts while trying to hide her cardiomyopathy.
It’s in the film’s grim and granular sketching of Amy’s illness and the grind it takes to get and afford help that we start to see that this is all part of a bigger picture, the film a rather angry assault on a callous and convoluted healthcare system. To get health insurance through her job, Amy must work there for a year first. She’s a few months shy of that mark, so while the doctor (who charges Amy $980 for a test and consultation) might caution her that working in her condition could lead to death, she is left without a choice. When Charles enters the ward, it’s with a heavenly glow, someone to help her through the nights and cover for her increasingly frequent attacks. The two become close in and out of work, Charles ingratiating himself with Amy and her two daughters until an investigation into an unusual death starts to make Amy wonder who she’s friends with.
Director Tobias Lindholm and 1917 co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, thankfully rebounding after the maddening mess that was Last Night in Soho, initially nail the balance of micro and macro, focusing a bit less on Charles himself and a bit more on the system that has been protecting him. After a patient dies and the hospital reluctantly calls in detectives (played by Nnamdi Asomugha and Noah Emmerich), seven weeks after, to investigate, the gradual pan back shows that even if those higher up have been aware, or at least suspicious, of wrongdoing at this or previous institutions, admitting so would mean they would have to accept culpability, everything going back to the dollar. A standout Kim Dickens embodies the chilly, corporate face of Cullen’s latest hospital, playing an evasive “risk manager”, and there’s a fun crackle to her talky scenes with Asomugha and Emmerich, both baffled by what they’re faced with.
But when the focus tightens and Chastain and Redmayne dominate, the balance starts feeling a little less interestingly modulated. While Chastain’s beleaguered and increasingly unwell single mother is nicely drawn (every moment of life-threatening over-exertion is a horribly well-ratcheted scene of tension), her friend turned antagonist is kept at a distance, one that ultimately becomes too removed for his character to register as more than a collection of statistics. In trying to maintain the mystery and to avoid overdosing on uneasy trauma, the harrowing details of Cullen’s childhood are kept to his Wikipedia page, admirable if a little frustrating. While Redmayne’s unusual looks and energy are well-suited for maximum oddness here (with an accent that’s more believable than the one he, and we, struggled with in The Trial of the Chicago 7) he’s a little too restricted by the writing to be much more than a creepy presence and so takes a backseat to Chastain.
She’s an actor who often underplays to her detriment for characters who need something a bit more pronounced, a little more involved, but it’s a minimalism that’s smartly deployed here for someone whose life is less focused on her own emotions and wellbeing and more on those around her. When her emotions do come, when circumstances force her to grapple with horror in a way she doesn’t usually give herself time for, they still come with subtlety – but of a shattering kind. A late stage scene of her having to mask tears is particularly poignant. She knows exactly when to gently push forward and also quickly pull back and while it’s unlikely to get her the same level of awards attention, it’s one of her more finely suited roles. Even when some of the dialogue goes from crackle to clunk, she still convinces.
If the final confrontation between the pair doesn’t quite satisfy then perhaps it was never going to. The nature of the story and the makers’ unusual unwillingness not to coerce the facts into something more dramatically palatable yet also more false means that we’re left wanting. I’d argue we could have been given slightly more, especially in the telling of Cullen’s crimes and past, but The Good Nurse remains a good, if not ultimately great, attempt to tell the story of a very bad person.
The Good Nurse is screening at the Toronto film festival and will be available on Netflix from 26 October