There is a sense of silence in “The Good Sister”. Just as hospital corridors are devoid of any emotion and life, where doctors work tirelessly for infinity, where sickness and disease hang heavy in the air, and where a sense of gloom lingers around every corner, “The Good Nurse” also gives the audience the same feeling.
Directed by Tobias Lindholm, the film is based on serial killer Charles Cullen, who killed at least 29 people during his tenure as a nurse in more than 9 hospitals. But medical experts believe the number could be as high as 400. In Lindholm’s film, Cullen plays Eddie Redmayne, who befriends Amy (Jessica Chastain) at his new job at a New Jersey hospital. Amy is a hard-working single mother who works late into the night and has recently discovered that she has a heart condition that could be fatal if not operated on. She doesn’t have health insurance that the hospital will give her after she completes a year of work. Amy and Charlie become friends, often covering each other’s shifts and caring for their patients. Knowing about her heart condition, Charlie also helps Amy at home and within a few months he almost becomes a surrogate parent to her two daughters.
When an elderly woman, both Amy and Charlie, die under mysterious circumstances, the hospital conducts an internal investigation seven weeks after the incident, eventually informing the state police as a matter of record. Things don’t seem complicated or suspicious to Amy at first, but when two investigating officers (Nnamdi Asomugha and Noah Emmerich) make her study the final reports of the deceased, she realizes that the death was caused by a double dose of insulin in the body. .
The officers are suspicious of Cullen because of his past history of trespassing, but none of his previous employers are prepared to talk to them about the man. How Amy helps crack the case by risking her job and friendship forms the rest of the story.
Written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the film takes time to gain traction. The script, which runs just over two hours, relies heavily on its actors and their performances. The theatrics are minimal (Redmayne displays some at the end of the film), and yet the film manages to keep you engaged – with its morbid subject matter, shots of abandoned hospital lobbies and tired workers. Set in the early 21st century, the film re-enacts the gross exploitation faced by medical professionals as they spend endless hours in the hospital. Most of them are tired and weary, and hospitals impose too many conditions to ensure that staff stay – for a better life.
While the film focuses on the terrifying Cullen, who apparently never offered a coherent motive behind killing so many patients, it also subtly highlights the lack of empathy the American medical system has for its patients. The film questions the hospital for never reporting Cullen to the authorities and instead sweeping the problem under the rug by firing him. Every time the death toll rose, irregularities were seen and Cullen was fired, but there was no investigation to keep state authorities from questioning the hospital’s laxity. And so it is left to a single mother with limited means and resources to support her and her daughters to fight the system for the sake of her patients. Investigating officers always reach out to her – every time they reach a dead end to get Cullen to confess.
While the film’s premise is tense and terrifying throughout, the narrative becomes empathetic towards Cullen in the climax, only to provide insight into how both he and Amy are just products of a flawed system.
Redmayne and Chastain – both credible actors – give restrained performances in the film. Chastain plays a tired, sick mother with too much on her plate, while Redmayne plays a steely-cold killer who chooses the people he wants as friends and the people he wants dead. The scene where the pair talk in a restaurant near the climax stands out for its complexity and the performances of both actors. The scene is the highlight of the film and will stay with you.
You might know how ‘The Good Sister’ would end because there’s already a lot of Cullen stuff on the internet. But therein lies the challenge – to create a familiar story that captivates with excellent performances and good writing. And ‘The Good Sister’ ticks both of those boxes. The movie is streaming on Netflix.
Director Tobias Lindholm’s The Good Sister is the kind of film that suffers with itself. It’s a medical thriller set mostly in a hospital intensive care unit, with a textual and visual treatment of the story that feels more cobbled together than organic. Static camera movements, long and unedited shots, and dimly lit scenes reflect the gloom and despair of the ICU. The frames are as barren as those long hospital corridors, with only the primary characters taking up space. The writing also feels lifeless at first, almost as if it has been resuscitated in the end.
With the utmost confidence in the real subject that the film handles, there is a visible effort on the part of the creators to build everything else as minimally as possible, so that the exploration of the environment is as measured as can be imagined. In hindsight, however, this simplicity goes against everything the script is trying to build, as it never seems to find a rhythm. Thus, the textual and visual treatment of the film bears no fruit in a scenario that could not be more ordinary.
However, being introduced to this world in such a slow burn is exciting. The very opening shot of the film is a slow zoom in on nurse Charles Cullen (Eddie Redmayne). Charles is seen tending to a patient out of frame at St. Aloysius, Pennsylvania, when the alarms suddenly go off and the patient has a seizure. Instead of focusing on all the commotion and the doctors trying to fight the situation, the camera is getting closer and closer to Charles, with a background score that couldn’t be more terrifying.
We are then transported to 2003, six years after the incident, at Parkfield Memorial Hospital in New Jersey, where Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain) works as an ICU nurse. The way Amy is introduced fills the bleak, desaturated framework with hope. After caring for an elderly woman, she allows her husband to spend the night in the room, which is against hospital policy. But this is not it. We immediately realize that Amy suffers from a coronary disease called cardiomyopathy and that she has to keep this diagnosis a secret from her employer for another four months in order to use her health insurance.
Amy’s performance also ends with a tight close-up, but for a different reason than Charles. It’s safe to assume that he has an unhealthy obsession with the “codes” or warning sirens that sound from the patient monitoring system. As Amy fills the screen, we feel the suffocation, the cut-throat lifestyle and her dangerous fight with death.
We soon see Charles join Amy’s team at Parkfield and the two share a cordial working relationship that is primarily built on how similar their marital situations are; both are separated and parents of two little girls. But the similarities don’t end there, as we soon find out. Both are hiding secrets. While we know what Amy is hiding, Charles’ case requires effort to uncover, and detectives Danny Baldwin (Nnamdi Asomugha) and Tim Braun (Noah Emmerich) are tasked with the same after the mysterious death of a patient in the ICU.
But here begins the problem with a thriller like The Good Sister, which is supposed to be simple and straightforward. How the investigation progresses and drips with information – while building the fascinating psyche of the serial killer at hand – is all that matters. But here the information is few and concrete, and therefore it helps to have few surprises. One wonders why the makers couldn’t add at least one red herring for cinematic purposes. Plus, we never really get enough to understand the psyche of a serial killer. The only tension we feel is from information about how Charles once assaulted an ex-lover when they broke up.
The duality of the two main characters is the only notable aspect of this scenario. Charles and Amy are quite opposites. The very title of the film is a play on them; on how Charles comes off as an innocent, meek, harmless nurse, and on the goodness in Amy’s heart that drives her to do what’s right even when it potentially puts her life at risk.
Despite their anorexic characterizations, Jessica and Eddie shine with understated performances at moments to keep you invested. But that’s in a film that never pulls its punches even as it tries to raise social awareness of the consequences of medical negligence, the importance of affordable health insurance and the self-centered nature of business.