“The Good Nurse” director Tobias Lindholm wasn’t interested in making a why-dunnit.
The Netflix drama, which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival, tells the horrifying true story of Charles Cullen, the serial killer who used his position as a nurse to murder up to 40 patients. But the film isn’t a psychological study.
“I’m not that fascinated with the reasons that Charlie did this,” says Lindholm. “I was more interested in why we didn’t stop him sooner, because we could have.”
Indeed, “The Good Nurse” is as much an indictment of the way that Cullen was able to maneuver through labyrinthine hospital systems, with executives and administrators covering his tracks as a way of skirting liability. That failure to fully acknowledge Cullen’s culpability in mysterious patient deaths, enabled him to go from one job to another, sowing destruction in his wake. Lindholm, who is Danish, says he wasn’t that aware of the particulars of the U.S. healthcare industry, but having overseen the political drama “Borgen,” he was very familiar with the way bureaucracies can lose touch with the people they are supposed to help.
“My work has always been about systems,” says Lindholm. “‘The Good Nurse’ became a portrayal of yet another system that is dehumanizing. All over the world we build institutions because they’re a way to organize our lives, but they ultimately become so remote, so removed from daily life that they forget who they are supposed to serve. And that is fascinating.”
Lindholm also directed several episodes of David Fincher’s “Mindhunter,” a look at FBI profilers. That made him wary of overly pat explanations for abhorrent compulsions when it came to Cullen.
“When Charlie got caught, the cops asked all these questions — did it have to do with your ex-wife or your mother?” says Lindholm. “Every explanation felt too simple.”
“The Good Nurse” offers up two meaty roles for Eddie Redmayne, the one-time Newt Scamander, here playing against type as the very creepy Cullen, and Jessica Chastain as Amy Loughren, a colleague of Cullen’s who risks everything to catch him. The two have a pair of scenes towards the end of the picture that play like a duet between two masters.
“We would meet in my apartment and run scenes over and over again,” says Lindholm. “Jessica and Eddie had been wanting to work with each other for a long time. They pushed each other and they had everything nailed down so that they could show up on set and be totally present. That’s when they found surprises.”
Ultimately, “The Good Nurse” is a story of heroism. Loughren is dealing with a debilitating heart condition, but in order to get the treatment she needs she has to keep working at a punishing job in order to get healthcare coverage. Her decision to help the police catch Cullen imperils all of that.
“It’s almost a mythic story about this struggling woman who has to confront evilness,” says Lindholm. “And she deals with it not with hatred, but with humanity and kindness.”