While there are several serial killer movies on Netflix, one of the most terrifying is The Good Nurse, where Eddie Redmayne transforms into Charles "Charlie" Cullen who is believed to have killed hundreds of U.S. hospital patients over a 16-year nursing career, while Jessica Chastain plays real-life hero Amy Loughren, his coworker who risked her life to bring him to justice.
“The real Amy is an extraordinary woman and when I spoke to her in prep for this film, she and Charlie were incredibly close friends and she spoke about his kindness, his empathy, his sort of humour, his self-deprecating wit, and there were only a couple of times that she ever met, how she describes it as, a…different person,” Redmayne said during a conversation part at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
“It was an odd thing, this film, because you were playing someone who was authentically kind and generous, and in the moment empathetic, but there was this other side, and this other character emerging. When it did emerge there was a confidence and an arrogance, and it really was a completely different person. It took a while for me to really take that on because I couldn't believe that, it's an odd thing to see that, like a totally different human being.”
What happened to Charles Cullen?
As Charles Cullen explained to investigators, outlined in author Charles Graeber's book "The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder," the murderer would deliberately spike IV bags with medicine that would kill patients at the hospitals where he worked, across New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
While working at the Somerset Health Center in Somerville, New Jersey, Cullen became friends with coworker Amy Loughren, a nurse and single mother who was also managing a life threatening heart condition. It was Loughren who discovered what Cullen was doing to the patients at the hospital.
Cullen was arrested in 2003 and had told authorities that he killed as many as 40 patients over his 16-year nursing career, but it's believed the number of murders could be as many as 400, which would make him the most prolific serial killer in recorded history.
“When I took this part on, I knew that I was going to be searching for that ‘why,’ but I had to acknowledge that I wasn’t going to find it,” Eddie Redmayne said.
But the actor does highlight that Cullen’s father died before his first birthday and he attempted suicide as a child. When Cullen was a teen, his mother died in a car crash, with her body “lost” by the hospital and when it was found it was, as Redmayne described it, it was “uncovered and disrespected.” Cullen then passed the psychiatric testing needed to join the U.S. Navy and at one point was found with his finger over the button for the Poseidon missiles on the submarine. He had also been in and out of psychiatric facilities.
“The fact that that sort of person was ever allowed around vulnerable people and by the way, when he trained to be a nurse, it was at the hospital that his mother had died,” Redmayne said.
“So there was always a slight sense for me, the way it's asked in this film, when he's asked why he goes, ‘because they didn't stop me,’ and I always wondered, I don't believe there's one motivation,...but was it something connected to the way that his mother perhaps had been treated? But you try to take all of that in.”
'She never saw anyone as a monster'
For Jessica Chastain as Amy Loughren, the actor displays this brilliant mix of compassion, vulnerability and strength as Loughren manages her heart condition, while working night shifts at the ICU to support her family, and then ends up putting her life on the line to keep her children and future patients safe from Charles Cullen, someone she had previously found comfort with.
“What was so inspiring about playing Amy is speaking to the real Amy Loughren, and one of the first things she's talked to me about was being a single mother, and she said she worked night shifts so her children would think their mom was a stay at home mom,” Chastain said during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). “So she'd work all night and then she'd come home and sleep for a few hours, but then spend the day with her kids.”
“All at the same time, she's struggling with cardiomyopathy and needs a heart transplant, and there's a lot of codes at the hospital. So there's a lot of stress in her life and I was so inspired by the sense of taking care of others that she had when speaking to her, and the story, and the idea that she never saw anyone as a monster, she was able to see them as a human being first and use compassion to end a cycle of violence.”
When asked if the actor believes Loughren’s heart condition could have impacted how she interacted with and built a relationship with Cullen, Chastain said she believes it “softens” Loughren.
“I think anyone struggling with a health issue, especially something with your heart, I can't help but think that, energetically, that softens you a bit and makes you vulnerable,” Chastain said. “Her heart rate wasn't allowed to go over a certain amount of beats per minute or she could have a heart attack and die.”
“So there's a sense of always trying to calm down and ground yourself, but yes, it's really a shocking thing that she was able to do while she was struggling with that medical issue, and the emotional issue of it.”
Amy Loughren 'managed to accomplish things that broken systems couldn't'
This is the first time Tobias Lindholm has directed a story he didn’t write, which is a testament to how beautifully writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns crafted this script, also done in a way that doesn't glorify this murderer.
“This is a true story and it was incredibly important to us that this was not the glorification of a serial killer, that it didn’t have this salacious quality that sometimes true crime films can have,” Eddie Redmayne said. “The second I read the script for this, Krysty’s script, there was none of that in it, it was a piece about a hero…of a single mum hero, who managed to accomplish things that broken systems couldn't.”
“At its core, it was about how violence could be confronted by compassion, and that's what Jessica did so extraordinarily, and that’s what the real Amy did… Systems are made up of individuals, but also within that, when you're a cog in a machine, you can lose that sense of responsibility or hide from that sense of responsibility, but actually, it is the individual that can change it.”
For Lindholm, he also felt a sense of responsibility to not only portray Amy and healthcare workers honestly, but show the flaws in the healthcare system, in the U.S. specifically. The Good Nurse particularly succeeds in truly showing what these “good nurses” look like, all these people who dedicate their lives to care for others with compassion, even while battling a flawed system.
“We are portraying real people's lives here, and not only Amy's but all the healthcare workers out there working at hospitals, and the thing is that even if a system is broken, the people in it is not necessarily," Lindholm said. "[It] reminded us that we have a responsibility to defend everybody...as human beings, and at the same time, look critically at the system.”