A dramatic thriller with social commentary aimed directly at the people who thanked healthcare providers by banging ‘thaalis’ in their honour on janta curfew day, Netflix‘s The Good Nurse is an unusually taut film that is best enjoyed with as little prior information as possible.
Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne share top-billing and deliver performances worthy of the Oscars in their cabinets as director Tobias Lindholm — making his English language debut after a trio of excellent Danish dramas — finds nuanced ways to tell a rather familiar story. Not only does The Good Nurse offer an elevated take on the police procedural genre, it also treats the eerie true-crime story at its centre with remarkable restraint.
Part of the fun in watching the movie — although ‘fun’ is hardly an appropriate word to describe the kind of injustice that it dourly dramatises — is wondering how Linholm and writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917, Last Night in Soho) will subvert narrative tropes next. After behaving like a character study for about an hour, The Good Nurse transforms into something entirely different (and just as engaging) around the halfway mark.
Chastain plays an overworked nurse named Amy, who discovers early in the film that she has a serious heart condition that needs to be addressed immediately. But Amy, like so many millions of Americans, doesn’t have the necessary insurance to cover her treatment. Moments after a doctor tells her that she has to somehow survive till she can make it to the transplant list, she is slapped with a bill of nearly $1000 for the consultation.
It is in these scenes that The Good Nurse functions like one of those prestige genre movies about the white American working class, like Out of the Furnace or The Place Beyond the Pines. Amy’s condition is grave, and the film’s anger at her situation, and, by extension the American healthcare system, is made all the more impactful because of her visible dedication to helping others. But her burdens ease considerably when Redmayne’s soft-spoken (is there any other kind of Redmayne character?) Charles Cullen shows up as the new night shift nurse at her hospital. He learns about her illness quite early on, and offers to help care for her as she buys time before she is eligible for insurance.
The bond that they form over endlessly stressful nights in the ICU is genuine, and the film’s immediate objective, it seems, is to get Amy over the hump and to safety. But everything is turned on its head when two detectives are summoned by the hospital to participate in an internal investigation into an elderly patient’s mysterious death. And when another patient — this one is much younger — dies under similar circumstances, the detectives begin to suspect that something sinister is afoot.
The controlled drip-feed of information that Wilson-Cairns’ screenplay dispenses is a large reason behind the film’s success as a suspense thriller. The audience is never one step ahead of Amy, or even the detectives. We discover new details when they do. A lesser film — and indeed, most Netflix true-crime documentaries — would’ve likely leaned into the more salacious aspects of this tale. And there is opportunity for that. But under Lindholm, who previously found the human stories at the centre of a ticking time-bomb thriller (A Hijacking) and a war movie (A War), the best scenes in The Good Nurse are the ones where it’s just Chastain and Redmayne, having a conversation.
It helps that the direction is very understated. Barring a couple of moments — you will recognise one of them featuring Redmayne immediately — The Good Nurse has none of the loud, scenery chewing performances that one would normally associate with Oscar-bait such as this. Although admittedly, the film preemptively provides both Chastain and Redmayne with TikTok-friendly clips in the event that they are nominated, but their performances otherwise are surprisingly reigned in. Ice runs through this film’s veins, until it doesn’t.
One would imagine that the concept of spoilers, and the unfair act of revealing them, is limited to films that belong to the superhero genre. But it cannot be stressed how much of a difference watching The Good Nurse without having consumed the trailers and other marketing material makes.
The Good Nurse
Director – Tobias Lindholm
Cast – Jessica Chastain, Eddie Redmayne, Noah Emmerich, Nnamdi Asomugha
Rating – 4/5