Bruce Willis always carried heartache well
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Focus Features, Universal Studios, Moviestore/Shutterstock and Buena Vista Pictures
“Tell me a story about why you’re sad,” young Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) begs his therapist, Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis), in the most famous scene of The sixth sense. Cole sees dead people; that’s the big secret he’ll reveal to Malcolm a moment later, via a much more iconic line of dialogue. But that’s not all he sees. The boy is also attuned to his doctor’s deep, existential funk – the unmistakable melancholy that seeps through the cracks of the man’s lingering fatherly kindness.
We can see it too. In The sixth sense, Willis looks as haunted as Osment’s preteen psychic. Regret tugs at the edges of that million-dollar smile. Loneliness follows him like a shadow. He drapes himself in sadness, and he fits as well as the overcoat he wears for most of this uncharacteristically pessimistic Hollywood blockbuster. It was a surprisingly compelling look for the actor in 1999, at the end of a decade largely spent shooting bullets and sarcasm. He bore the heartache well.
Sixth Sense Director M. Night Shyamalan is among a handful of filmmakers to identify a suppressed, depressed quality in Willis’ repertoire — an underutilized shade of blue on his emotional color wheel. Is it easier, at this precise moment, to appreciate this sorry side of his work? The recent news of the star’s retirement is a sad final note in a career studded with them. That is to say, fans grappling with their own heartache over his exit from the industry can find compassionate solace in roles that have found something lovingly moody lurking behind the charisma of Willis cowboy.
That charisma was one of the most reliable draws of the hit machine of the 90s and 2000s. In one respect, Willis was an old-school movie star, reliable in his trademarks: his square mug and his shining on a poster almost guaranteed a certain irony, a willingness to pierce the seriousness of any situation with casual bluster. At the same time, he brought an Everyman quality to the testosterone-fueled goggles of the day, providing an alternative to the inhuman appeal of a Schwarzenegger or a Stallone. You might actually buy Willis as a normal person sometimes. He based his star tours on accessibility.
Many directors have found unconventional applications for Willis’ magnetism. With pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino shaved it into a mythical macho singularity, an urban-samurai cool. With Death becomes her, Robert Zemeckis found hints of slimy anxiety in his sitcom line-up, reckoning that audiences would cling to him as a frazzled foil for CGI’s femme fatales. But it was perhaps Terry Gilliam who first saw the full potential of counterintuitive pathos in Willis’ bulky framework a few years before Shyamalan.
Willis was at the height of his fame when he stepped in to play exhausted time traveler James Cole in 12 monkeys, Gilliam’s twisty remake of a Chris Marker short. It was a diabolical subversion of the actor’s marquee appeal and the expectations it held for audiences. In 1995, who else but John McClane could you trust to save humanity? Yet Cole (who, coincidentally, shares a name with the boy Osment will play alongside Willis four years later) is literally unable to change anything. He’s defeated in the first frame, a Bruce Willis character colliding with the harsh reality of a predetermined fate.
Yet there is more to performance than just productive undercutting of die hard heroic. Willis is often painfully exposed in the play. One of the greatest scenes in his entire filmography is the moment, perhaps halfway 12 monkeys, when Cole hears music on the 20th century car radio and just about melts away, his despair giving way to tragically fleeting joy. He’s almost childish here, a grizzled post-apocalyptic survivor reduced to a puddle of pure feelings; watching him, you understand how Willis could prove to be such a generous and appropriate stage partner for the real kids.
Shyamalan capitalized on that talent a few years later, with back-to-back supernatural thrillers that cast Willis as deeply sad men balancing their own all-consuming angst with the needs of the sad children in their care. While Gilliam seemed to weed out the coolness of the actor’s cucumber, finding raw emotion in shock, Shyamalan replaced it with an aura of deep dissatisfaction. Malcolm Crowe and Davd Dunn, the rising crime fighter Willis stars in Unbreakable (and again, later, in Split and Glass), are men so deeply in denial of who and what they are that they can’t connect to their own lives. What the filmmaker saw in his star was an avatar of spiritual dislocation. Literally, of course, in The sixth sense.
Willis does some of his most subdued and sensitive actions in these films – sometimes denying himself his usual bags of tricks, sometimes twisting or deepening them. So often an amused, talkative sage in his multiplex concerts, he works wonders with Shyamalan’s signature stretches of silence and wordless meditative observation. The sixth sense also makes good use of his background in comedy; part of how Malcolm gets to Cole is through humor, and you could say the film offers a similar olive branch to audiences, selling us this version of the star’s lost soul through little glimpses charm that made him a star. These glimmers help us to understand Malcolm as someone who has painfully lost touch with himself: it is a Bruce Willis performance that strategically buries Bruce Willis under a harrowing and enveloping fog of despondency.
In Unbreakable, Willis goes downright depressed to express Dunn’s alienation and displeasure. The whole mythos of the film’s superhero origin story is a costume shot of a rather terrific midlife crisis drama; when people talk about Shyamalan as a spiritual filmmaker, they realize how honestly he cares about the sickness of the soul – a sickness that Willis practically exudes from his pores every majestically sullen minute of Unbreakable. In its monolithic way, it’s a quintessential superhero performance, with Dunn emerging from a thick cloud of sadness to save the day and his family.
At a time The sixth sense and Unbreakable, Willis plays men struggling with rocky marriages. A few decades after his big break as a TV leading man Moonlightg, the star had become a convincingly wounded romantic, scarred by love in middle age. It is Wes Anderson who has perhaps most successfully exploited this amorous aspect of his personality in Moonrise Kingdom, planting him in a set of typically sad Anderson eccentrics. His character, Captain Sharp, is the sheriff of a New England island in the 1950s who is having a doomed affair with a married woman (Frances McDormand). Willis, who has made a name for himself as a more “ordinary” action hero, has never looked so ordinary as he does here, under thick glasses and a tucked-in, buttoned-up uniform. He abandoned all vanity to play someone slowly crushed by life’s little disappointments – the “sad, stupid policeman,” as another character with no charity describes him.
Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t so much throw Willis against type as it offers a low-key variation on types he’s played before. Isn’t Captain Sharp one of a long line of lone wolf lawmen on his resume, only this time stuck with a comedic low-danger beat? More movingly, the film sets up another surrogate-guardian relationship for the actor; a sin The sixth sense, we witness a compassionate communion between single people of different generations. Sharp bridges the gap between himself and his teenage charge, Sam (Jared Gilman), by not talking to him, by honestly talking about the shitty life that keeps pouring down on you as you get older.
For all Anderson is accused of turning his actors into live-action cartoons, he leaves a lot of space in Moonrise Kingdom for Willis to lean into the nuances of his advancing years, to enrich the sympathetic dog-dog qualities of his star character. In a sense, the director pulls off the same ingenious reinvention he did a few years earlier with Willis co-star Bill Murray: finding in a sardonic ’80s movie star the raw materials for an old man of State of bittersweet desire. Part of the tragedy of Willis’ diagnosis is that he probably had more such delicate and wise performances in him. (If the star had one last great year, it was in 2012, when the two Moonrise Kingdom and the exciting, inventive looper were released.)
Of course, as much as those performances seem like outliers in a career otherwise laden with action vehicles and studio comedies, their roots go all the way back to Willis’ most iconic role, his breakout turn in the original die hard. A lot has been done in John McClane’s years as a relatable, presumably human hero – he’s just an everyday cop, not an unstoppable force for action (at least, according to Michael Scott, until subsequent sequels). But the key to the performance’s timeless appeal, and perhaps the stardom it would secure for Willis, is that he is not only physically but also emotionally vulnerable. The film begins, after all, with McClane timidly flying off to Los Angeles in an attempt to mend his marriage. Before he’s sympathetic as an ordinary cop facing extraordinary circumstances, he’s very sympathetic as a lunkheaded type of guy quickly losing his wife and trying to navigate the various pitfalls of his life’s course at age adult.
It’s undeniable that in some ways Willis’ work in movies like 12 monkeys, The sixth senseand Moonrise Kingdom touches through context, as an alternative to his larger work. Seeing someone very famous for playing unflappable action men getting in touch with their softer side is truly disarming. At the same time, however, that melancholy has always been there, simmering beneath Willis’ star performances. It may even be a key sneaky explanation for his popularity, which drew us to him in the first place. Like little Cole Sear, we may have always seen the sadness that Bruce Willis hid under a joke or a smirk. It’s encouraging, though, that he found a few opportunities to let it come to the surface.