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) implores his therapist, Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis), in the most famous scene from The Sixth Sense. Cole sees dead people; it’s the big secret he’ll reveal to Malcolm just a moment later, via a much more iconic line of dialogue. But that’s not all he sees. The boy is also attuned to the deep, existential funk of his doctor — the unmistakable melancholy percolating through the cracks in the man’s persistent, paternal kindness.
We can see it too. In The Sixth Sense, Willis looks as haunted as Osment’s preteen medium. Regret tugs at the edges of that million-dollar smile. Loneliness follows him like a shadow. He drapes himself in sadness, and it fits as snugly as the overcoat he wears through most of this uncommonly downbeat Hollywood blockbuster. It was a surprisingly convincing look for the actor in 1999, at the end of a decade largely spent firing bullets and wisecracks. He wore heartache well.
Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan is among a handful of filmmakers to have identified a suppressed, bummed-out quality in Willis’ repertoire — an underutilized shade of blue on his emotional color wheel. Is it easier, at this particular moment, to appreciate that forlorn side of his work? The recent news of the star’s retirement is a final sad note in a career scattered with them. Which is to say, fans grappling with their own heartache about his exit from the industry can take commiserative solace in the roles that found something affectingly morose lurking behind Willis’s cowboy charisma.
That charisma was one of the most reliable draws of the ’90s and 2000s blockbuster machine. In one respect, Willis was an old-school movie star, dependent in his trademarks: His squarish mug and gleaming brow on a poster all but guaranteed a certain wryness, a willingness to puncture the seriousness of any situation with freaking swagger. At the same time, he brought an Everyman quality to the testosterone-fueled spectacles of the era, offering an alternative to the inhuman he-man appeal of a Schwarzenegger or Stallone. You could actually buy Willis as a normal person sometimes. He grounded his star turns in approachability.
Plenty of directors found unconventional applications for Willis’s magnetism. With pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino shaved it to a mythic macho singularity, an urban-samurai cool. With Death Becomes Her, Robert Zemeckis found notes of screwball anxiety in his sitcom training, banking that audiences would latch on to him as a frazzled foil for CGI femme fatales. But it was Terry Gilliam, perhaps, who first saw the full potential for counterintuitive pathos in Willis’s bulky frame, getting to it a few years before Shyamalan.
Willis was at the height of his fame when he stepped in to play frazzled 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 carried 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 would play opposite Willis four years later) is literally incapable of changing anything. He’s defeated from frame one, a Bruce Willis character colliding with the harsh reality of predetermined fate.
Still, there’s more to the performance than just a productive undercutting of diehard heroics. Willis is often achingly exposed in the part. One of the greatest scenes in his whole filmography is the moment, maybe halfway through 12 Monkeys, when Cole hears music on the 20th-century car radio and just about melts, his desperation giving way to tragically fleeting joy. He’s almost childlike here, a grizzled postapocalyptic survivor reduced to a puddle of pure feeling; watching him, you understand how Willis could prove such a generous, suitable scene partner for actual children.
Shyamalan capitalized on that talent a few years later, with back-to-back supernatural thrillers that cast Willis as profoundly sad men balancing their own consuming angst with the needs of sad kids in their care. Whereas Gilliam seemed to strip away the actor’s cucumber cool, finding raw shell-shocked emotion beneath it, Shyamalan replaced it with an aura of bone-deep dissatisfaction. Both Malcolm Crowe and Davd Dunn, the burgeoning crime fighter Willis plays in Unbreakable (and again, later, in Split and Glass), are men so deeply in denial about who and what they are that they can’t connect to their own lives. What the filmmaker saw in his star was an avatar for spiritual dislocation. Literally, of course, in The Sixth Sense.
Willis does some of his most subdued, sensitive acting in these movies—sometimes by denying himself his usual bags of tricks, sometimes by distorting or deepening them. So often an amused, talkative wiseass in his multiplex gigs, he does wonders with Shyamalan’s signature stretches of silence and meditatively wordless observation. The Sixth Sense makes good use of his background in comedy, too; part of the way Malcolm gets through to Cole is through humor, and you could say that the movie offers a similar olive branch to audiences, selling us on this lost-soul version of the star through little peeks at the charm that made him a star . Those glimmers help us understand Malcolm as someone who has painfully lost touch with himself: It’s a Bruce Willis performance that strategically buries Bruce Willis under a fog of poignant, enveloping despondency.
In Unbreakable, Willis goes downright depressive to convey Dunn’s alienation and discontent. All the film’s superhero-origin-story mythmaking is a costume pulled over a rather terrific midlife crisis drama; when people talk about Shyamalan as a spiritual filmmaker, they’re getting at how honestly he’s interested in the sickness of the soul — an illness that Willis practically exudes from his pores in every majestically moody minute of Unbreakable. In its monolithically tight-lipped way, it’s a quintessential superhero performance, Dunn emerging from a thick cloud of sadness to save the day and his family.
In both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Willis plays men struggling through troubled marriages. A couple of decades after his big break as a leading man on TV’s Moonlighting, the star had become a convincingly wounded romantic, bruised by love in middle age. It was Wes Anderson who perhaps most fruitfully exploited this lovelorn aspect of his persona in Moonrise Kingdom, planting him within an ensemble of typically sad-sack Anderson eccentrics. His character, Captain Sharp, is the sheriff of a New England island in the ’50s who is carrying on a doomed affair with a married woman (Frances McDormand). Willis, who made a name for himself as a more “ordinary” action hero, has never looked more ordinary than he does here, under thick glasses and a tucked-in, buttoned-up uniform. He has jettisoned all vanity to play someone slowly crushed by life’s little disappointments—the “sad, dumb policeman,” as another character uncharitably describes him.
Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t so much cast Willis against type as offer an understated variation on types he has played before. Isn’t Captain Sharp but one in a long line of lone-wolf lawmen on his résumé, only this time stuck with a comically low-danger beat? Most movingly, the movie arranges yet another surrogate-guardian relationship for the actor; as in The Sixth Sense, we’re watching a compassionate communion between lonely people of different generations. Sharp closes the gap between himself and his adolescent charge, Sam (Jared Gilman), by not talking down to him, by speaking honestly about the shit life keeps pouring on you as you get older.
For all Anderson is accused of transforming his actors into live-action cartoons, he allows a lot of space in Moonrise Kingdom for Willis to lean into the nuances of his advancing years, to enrich the sympathetic hangdog qualities of his star persona. In a sense, the director pulls off the same ingenious reinvention he did a number years earlier with Willis’s costar, Bill Murray: finding in a sardonic ’80s movie star the raw materials for an elder statesman of bittersweet longing. Part of the tragedy of Willis’s diagnosis is that he likely had more such delicate, wise performances in him. (If the star had one final great year, it was 2012, when both Moonrise Kingdom and the exciting, inventive Looper were released.)
Of course, for as much as these performances look like outliers in a career otherwise loaded with action vehicles and studio comedies, their roots twist all the way back to the most iconic of Willis roles, his breakout turn in the original diehard. Much has been made over the years of John McClane as a relatable, believably human hero — he’s just an everyday beat cop, not an unstoppable action force (at least, per Michael Scott, until the later sequels). But the key to the performance’s timeless appeal, and possibly to the stardom it would secure for Willis, is that he’s not just physically but also emotionally vulnerable. The movie begins, after all, with McClane sheepishly flying to Los Angeles to try to repair his marriage. Before he’s sympathetic as an ordinary cop facing extraordinary circumstances, he’s plenty likable as a kind of lunkheaded dude fast losing his wife and trying to navigate the various pitfalls of the course his life has taken in adulthood.
There’s no denying that, in some respects, Willis’s work in movies like 12 Monkeys, The Sixth Senseand Moonrise Kingdom is touching through context, as an alternative to his larger body of work. Seeing someone very famous for playing unflappable men of action get in touch with his soft side is reliably disarming. At the same time, though, that melancholia has always been there, simmering beneath Willis’s star performances. It’s perhaps even an essential stealth explanation for his popularity, the thing that drew us to him in the first place. Like little Cole Sear, maybe we’ve always seen the sadness Bruce Willis concealed under a quip or a smirk. It’s heartening, still, that he found a few opportunities to let it bob to the surface.