“Capturing the Killer Nurse” is a documentary about Charles Cullen, the serial killer whose chilling story is the basis of the Eddie Redmayne/Jessica Chastain movie “The Good Nurse.” Both films are being released by Netflix, in what has become a synergistic system of true-crime-as-cross-promotion (see the drama! then the documentary that, with its proliferation of staged scenes and whooshing thriller music, is engineered to feel like a drama!). What both versions show you is that the Cullen saga may be the first case of a serial killer who was enabled by corporate malfeasance.
Cullen, a geek with a porn-star mustache and a smirky grimace who spent 16 years as a highly regarded nurse in the Northeast (mostly New Jersey), injected hospital drugs — principally the heart-failure medication Digoxin — into a number of patients, killing them “invisibly.” He was arrested in December 2003 and confessed to the murders of 29 people; many think that he killed closer to 400. Given that his track record of foul play is traceable to the early ’90s, and that he worked in nine different hospitals, skipping from one to the next, it seems likely that the total number of victims was much higher than the official tally. (It tends to work that way with obsessive repetitive criminals; Harvey Weinstein is in prison for a fraction of his crimes of abuse.)
The key question in the Cullen case is: How did he get away with it for so long? That, of course, is a key question in nearly every serial-killer case, but the answer here isn’t merely something along the lines of, “He was furtive and diabolically clever and presented a ‘normal’ surface to the outside world.” All of that is true, but Charles Cullen, in fact, wasn’t all that clever. If you’re a medical professional who commits homicide in a hospital by injecting vulnerable patients with drugs that haven’t been prescribed for them, and the level of toxicity in their system is measured after they die, you’re practically handing investigators a road map to catch you.
The deaths of Cullen’s patients were “mysterious” (most weren’t suffering from terminal illnesses, and many were getting ready to be released). From the start, the hospitals he worked for saw red flags. But according to Charles Graeber, author of “The Good Nurse” (the acclaimed 2013 investigatory book that the documentary is based on; Graeber is one of the producers), Cullen’s predatory behavior created a conundrum for the corporate health institutions he worked for. If a hospital admitted what he had done, it could be liable and take a cataclysmic hit as a business. Apart from the exorbitant payouts it might owe to the victims’ families, having an infamous killer on your staff doesn’t exactly boost a hospital’s brand.
And so, according to Graeber, the hospitals, like St. Luke’s in Pennsylvania (which was about to expand to a new site), sat on the evidence and looked the other way. As presented by “Capturing the Killer Nurse,” the health-care executives acted a lot like the higher-ups in the Catholic Church with regard to sexually abusive priests. It was easier to turn a blind eye to the priests’ behavior and shuffle them off to another parish than it would have been to publicly expose a rats’ nest of criminal depravity.
Yet even as you’re aware that health care is now a big business, you watch “Capturing the Killer Nurse” and think: Really? There were hospitals that looked past the fact that a nurse on their staff was a psychotic killer? If true, that says something profound about the way that mainstream America is now operating.
Directed by Tim Travers Hawkins, “Capturing the Killer Nurse” doesn’t pretend to be an especially far-reaching or complete documentary. It doesn’t probe too deeply into Cullen’s past (though it does cite a couple of old arrests and his abuse of family pets — that cliché from Serial Killer 101). True to its title, the movie focuses mainly on the two months during which police detectives in Somerset, NJ, where Cullen was working at the Somerset Hospital, began to close in on him.
They faced much of the same stonewalling the other hospitals had thrown up. In this case, though, an official at the Poison Control Center in Newark thought something was fishy when he got a call about a patient who died of Digoxin. The detectives wanted to see the computerized records of the Pyxis drug dispenser (from which, it turned out, Cullen made huge withdrawals of drugs), and they were told that it only retained data for 30 days. They then contacted the manufacturer and learned this was nonsense. They were being played by the hospital administrators.
As soon as they got the printouts of the drugs that were being dispensed, they had hard evidence. And now, for the first time, they also had a whistleblower. It was Cullen’s friend and colleague Amy Loughren (the woman played by Chastain in “The Good Nurse”), a rather desperate single mother who suffered from cardiomyopathy, and who stood by her pal Charlie, even after the cops got him fired — until she saw those printouts. That’s when she knew. And that’s when she agreed to cooperate with the cops by wearing a wire and having a friendly dinner with Charlie, whom she tried to nudge toward a confession.
Loughren is a compelling character. So are the cops, and so, in his way, is the documentary’s “star,” who we hear on tape (from Graeber’s extensive interviews with him), and who comes equipped with an earnest explanation for why he killed all those people. He says, with a voice of wounded Norman Bates sincerity, that it was his way of “ending their suffering,” which is about as good a demonstration as I’ve heard of how a serial killer can be off his rocker and full of malarkey at the same time. After “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” “Capturing the Killer Nurse,” and a fiend like Charles Cullen, may seem a bit second tier. That’s what can happen when this sort of thing becomes a diversion — the threshold keeps being raised. Then again, it’s a Netflix serial-killer-as-entertainment world. We just live and gawk in it.