Jessica Chastain will also star as the opposing force to Redmayne’s “Angel of Death.”
Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain will soon be working together, and although I would naturally hope for a more charming offering involving two of my favorite redheaded actors, the actual details of their latest project are of a much gorier nature. As reported by Deadline, Redmayne and Chastain will headline the truth-based movie The Good Nurse, a thriller that will track the abominably lengthy career of one of the most notorious American serial killers, Charles Cullen.
Frequent Thomas Vinterberg collaborator Tobias Lindholm will make his English language feature directing debut with the film, having previously dipped his toes into the true crime adaptation field with Netflix’s superbly chilling crime series Mindhunter. Krysty Wilson-Cairns of Penny Dreadful fame rounds out this exceptional creative quartet, bringing her scriptwriting talents to The Good Nurse.
Based on Charles Graeber’s book “The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder,” the movie unpacks Cullen’s exploits. He was a nurse who was implicated in the deaths of hundreds of patients who were in his care, from the late 1980s through the early 2000s, thus being dubbed the “Angel of Death.”
On the surface, Cullen (who will be played by Redmayne) was not only a family man but a celebrated caregiver wherever he worked. However, he also participated in a killing spree across nine hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania which went on over the course of 16 years. Furthermore, a flawed healthcare system lacking in transparent accountability failed to subdue Cullen, allowing him to easily move from hospital to hospital each time he was suspected of wrongdoing. Finally, two former Newark detectives caught up with his murderous habits with the help of Cullen’s co-worker (Chastain).
Ultimately, what makes Graeber’s account of Cullen’s murders so compelling is its simultaneous indictment of the inexcusable practices at the hospitals where his heinous crimes took place. At the time, there was an egregious lack of responsibility to report suspicious deaths in these facilities due to the fact that any possible penalty for not reporting them was relatively small. Hospital employers also resisted giving bad referrals to terminated workers in a bid to avoid being slapped with lawsuits. Even when Cullen eventually developed a creepy reputation in the workplace, individual employees had to speak to other members of staff – informally or in private – to prevent his hiring.
Of course, Cullen’s presence is far from absent in Graeber’s book — it wouldn’t be a classic true crime story if those details were left out. Admittedly, this is likely the toughest thing to get right in a film adaptation. The book leans a hair too close towards empathizing with its reprehensible subject in an attempt to discern his motivations. Cullen is described as “a surprisingly intelligent and complicated young man whose promising career was overwhelmed by his compulsion to kill” in the synopsis of the book, which is absolutely inappropriate given what he actually did.
Whether or not these issues will translate into any kind of onscreen glorification of Cullen at least makes me wary about The Good Nurse to a certain degree. The Hollywood machine totally endorses fixating on and pathologizing serial killers on screen, whether they’re fictional like Hannibal Lecter or based in reality like any number of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer portrayals.
These are supposedly larger-than-life characters that any actor would jump at the opportunity for, and so making movies about them is certainly understandable. Such unnerving anecdotes and reports make for confrontational and distressing cinema at the most basal level. There is even an added layer of discomfort in the Cullen story — the fact that his job description dictates that he helps others. Depicting that kind of cognitive disconnect is definitely a worthy challenge to undertake.
And as long as The Good Nurse sticks with a concurrent focus on a failing healthcare system and the quest to bring Cullen to justice, the film could still tell a fascinating story without indulging in overt veneration. Crime movies that lack explicit empathy for their subjects can still be extremely gripping, after all.
A good example of this is David Fincher’s Zodiac. That film focuses so doggedly on the chase for the truth and relishes in the fear of the unknown that the eponymous killer’s motivations never become the inordinate focal point of the storyline. Well, it does for one protagonist who takes a vested interest in the ordeal. However, Zodiac posits that justice can be — and should be — just as gripping as the myths surrounding a serial killer.
Adapting The Good Nurse in such a way wouldn’t rob Redmayne of a chance to embody such a disconcerting character either, and it would be a win-win situation. With his recent big-screen efforts, we have become more accustomed to watching him earnestly wield a magic wand against evil in the Wizarding World or transform into an admirable historical figure like Stephen Hawking. Hence, the choice to take on the Cullen role is a notable shift for him. Still, Redmayne’s career isn’t only filled with shining examples of morality, and that’s what’s exciting about this casting choice.
Redmayne has definitely played villains in the past, with the most obvious one being his ludicrous whispery baddie in the Wachowskis’ high-concept sci-fi extravaganza Jupiter Ascending. More often than not, though, Redmayne doesn’t treat antagonism blandly. Despite having depicted deeply questionable or sometimes repugnant characters in films like Savage Grace and Hick, Redmayne is anything but two-dimensional. I wouldn’t say he makes the characters likable, but he understands how to translate their emotional turmoil for the camera.
On Chastain’s part, she will be filling the shoes of a wonderfully resilient character partially responsible for the downfall of corruption, and that is completely in her wheelhouse. Miss Sloane, The Zookeeper’s Wife, and Molly’s Game have all demonstrated that institutions ought to quake when one of her characters decides that enough is enough. These roles have given Chastain the chance to build her brand on portraying determined and proactive women. It’s easy to see how Chastain will fit into the fabric of The Good Nurse. And as an aside, I’m more inclined to look out for this project than a certain other that she signed on for recently.
Clearly, The Good Nurse has all the right ingredients for a gripping crime thriller. With no reason to distrust Redmayne and Chastain’s star power, we may very well have a hit on our hands.