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The Good Nurse Review: Good Nurse, Bad Execution

  • Commanding performance from Jessica Chastain
  • Powerful indictment of hospital cover-ups
  • Relies heavily on genre cliches
  • Eddie Redmayne makes questionable acting choices

What's that phrase that Mr. Rogers always said? When you're scared, "always look for the helpers"? We have this unspoken social understanding, right or wrong, that you can instinctively trust that a person in scrubs in a hospital setting isn't there to hurt anyone. "The Good Nurse," a chilling true story about a nurse whose murder spree went undetected for years, is fascinating because of that very cognitive dissonance. The idea that the people who literally nurse us when we're at our most vulnerable take advantage of that trust and cause harm is horrifying. 

Unfortunately, the film "The Good Nurse" doesn't have much in its corner beyond its real-life origins and a capable, grounded leading performance from Jessica Chastain. It seems to want to be both salacious true crime and thought-provoking medical drama, but it doesn't quite commit to either, leaving "The Good Nurse" a muddled derivative of many other more engaging murder stories.

The good nurse and the bad nurse

Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain) is a deeply empathetic but overwhelmed nurse struggling to balance the demands of her job with raising two daughters as a single mother. She's burning the candle at both ends, and it certainly doesn't help matters when some of her patients, seemingly on the road to recovery, suddenly die while at the hospital. With all of this going on, she' is relieved when she develops a rapport with Charles Cullen (Eddie Redmayne), the new nurse on the unit. He seems warm, kind, and eager to be helpful, and it isn't long before their friendship extends outside of working hours. When she needs an extra pair of hands with her kids, he's her first call — from practicing for an elementary school theatrical audition to helping with dinner, Charles seems like the perfect friend. They have an easy chemistry together that helps us buy into their relationship almost immediately.

All the while, the police are investigating the strange deaths at the hospital, first as a matter of routine, but then out of genuine curiosity. Something isn't adding up: Why would multiple people, by all accounts not in any serious danger, up and die for no reason? The hospital proves to be spectacularly unhelpful in their investigation — they are resentful of the implication of potential wrongdoing and eager to throw up any roadblocks between them and a lawsuit. People just die sometimes, they say. It is a hospital, after all. Also, it's routine for all of our records to be purged on a regular basis; nothing to see here. But despite the hospital's best efforts to run interference with the police department, the detectives in charge of the case (played by Nnamdi Asomugha and Noah Emmerich) begin to suspect that these are more than just run-of-the-mill hospital deaths — they're murder.

Redmayne goes off the rails

All of this unfolds surprisingly conventionally, almost like we're watching a better-than-average Lifetime original film rather than a big-budget drama with two Oscar winners in the headlining roles. There's a reluctance to take chances, either visually or narratively, that makes "The Good Nurse" come across as almost rote in the true crime genre. And if there's a weak link in the cast, it's Eddie Redmayne, sad to say. His performance as Charles Cullen, however accurate it may be, is so off-putting that it seems impossible no one pegged this guy as a serial killer. Meek and needy for most of the film, he turns on a dime to deliver a shouty breakdown that no doubt was envisioned as his Oscar clip for this film. It's not quite as chilling as it was intended to be — it will likely elicit laughter from the audience more than anything else.

But aside from Redmayne's bizarre performance, the rest of "The Good Nurse" is perfectly content to play it safe. Chastain does her best with the material, and she gets in a few powerful moments as she balances her desire to help the police with her utter disbelief that Charlie could not only be responsible for these deaths but that he could have gotten away with it for so long. In a lot of ways, it feels like if "The Good Nurse" had committed fully to the idea of being an indictment on the medical community's willingness to cover for bad actors out of fear of malpractice suits, it might have been a stronger film. But everyone involved in the production knows that true crime sells, and out of necessity, they cling to the tropes of the genre, to the film's detriment.

Maybe this is too harsh. Watching "The Good Nurse" is not an unpleasant experience. It has some genuinely moving moments, especially surrounding the sudden deaths of people who were in the hospital for extremely treatable conditions, and had their entire lives ahead of them. The behavior of the hospital administrators in creating roadblocks at every turn of the investigation is appropriately maddening, and the revelation of how long a serial killer was able to masquerade as a healer is a shock to the system. But throughout the entire film, there's a sense that this is supposed to be the prestige version of the true crime drama, and it fails to meet the benchmark that it lays out for itself by being ... well, just sort of unimaginative. "The Good Nurse" isn't a disaster, by any means, but neither does it rise above mediocrity.

"The Good Nurse" is in select theaters and debuts on Netflix on Wednesday, October 26.