Back in November 2021, Moonrise Kingdom lead Jared Gilman briefly shared his experience working with his former costar, Bruce Willis. Willis played police Captain Sharp of the fictional island of New Penzance in Wes Anderson’s 2012 coming-of-age film, alongside Gilman’s Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky.
Sharp is having an affair with the mother of Sam’s paramour, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), played by Frances McDormand, and subsequently leads the search party for retrieving Sam and Suzy. The two preteens have fled on a romantic escapade to rid themselves of the adult oppression in their lives, though their passionate jaunt is cut short (for only a little while) when said adults finally manage to track them down despite Sam’s commendable outdoorsmanship. Sharp’s entrance into Sam’s life changes everything for the orphan who’d been bullied by his Khaki Scout troop and abandoned by his foster family. Sharp not only offers Sam true guardianship and treats him as an equal—instead of as the emotionally disturbed nuisance everyone makes him out to be—but extends Sam the warmth and understanding that only another abandoned outsider could give him.
In the tweet, Gilman noted that—despite the stories over the years of Willis being far from the easiest actor to work with, or the nicest guy in general—Willis had been kind to Gilman when he worked with him as a child (and had snuck Gilman a sip of beer shortly after Moonrise Kingdom premiered at Cannes). It was a sweet anecdote to learn back when rumors of Willis’ declining health were only a few months out from becoming more publicly widespread, though many had already been speculating about the actor’s latent obligation to VOD dreck. Gilman’s recollection only helped bolster the modern memory of Willis’ performance in Moonrise Kingdom, one of the movie star’s last meaningful roles before he would be forced to leave characters like Captain Sharp behind him.
Though a subdued character by nature—not superficially unlike the muted performances which would begin to define Willis’s late career—Willis is no less affecting in his melancholic portrayal of the “sad, dumb policeman,” as described curtly by Suzy to her mother. One of the earliest scenes with Captain Sharp sees him inform Mr. (Bill Murray) and Mrs. Bishop of Sam’s disappearance. He asks the couple—discontented and loveless—to be on the lookout for the boy, after which Mrs. Bishop discretely leaves the house under the guise of doing laundry. Instead, she hops on her bike and meets Sharp up the road to smoke cigarettes together, and if they do anything else, well, it’s not explicitly depicted in the film.
Eventually, Sharp is forced to lead the search for the runaway Suzy and Sam, and acts as the pragmatic voice of reason mitigating conflict between the hot-headed Bishops and the scatterbrained though well-meaning Khaki Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). Over the course of the film, we learn that the affair between Mrs. Bishop and Sharp grew from Sharp’s unrequited love. And though little else is revealed about the nature of their past together, it can be inferred that their relationship remains exclusively sexual on the part of Mrs. Bishop (eventually the one to end their affair).
On the surface, the role of Captain Sharp stands in sharp contrast to the bulk of Willis’ career defined by macho tough guys, explosive action heroes and working class protagonists. The performances seen in his work with M. Night Shyamalan are less volatile, but still evoke the emotional intensity of his typecast range. But Willis has shown clear ability to flit from genre to genre, like in Rob Reiner’s romance The Story of Us, or erotic thriller The Color of Night. Willis kills (no pun intended) as the hysterical, dorky Dr. Ernest Menville in Robert Zemekis’s 1992 fantasy-comedy Death Becomes Her. And while his performance in the widely panned satire Breakfast of Champions was deemed by Sight & Sound to be “embarrassingly indulgent,” Roger Ebert felt that Disney’s The Kid proved “that Willis, so easily identified with action movies, is gifted in the areas of comedy and pathos.”
Sadly, the diversity in Willis’ roles became even less consistent as his career went on. But what it comes down to is that Willis is always good as the “guy with a problem,” whether that’s being trapped inside a skyscraping terrorist takeover or caught between the affections of two undead women. In Moonrise Kingdom, Captain Sharp is no John McClane, but he is still a working class man, a perceived “tough guy” cop, caught up in the middle of a major scandal while tangled in his own love life.
One could argue that much of Wes Anderson’s oeuvre is marked by similarly restrained, stilted dialogue in the performances he asks of his actors, or that it’s the kind of unemotive acting that would be seen in Willis’ later “geezer teasers.” But Captain Sharp is not necessarily a deadpan character, and he is certainly not generated through a phoned-in performance. Instead, he reads as a quietly emasculated man sheltering his melancholy under the protective status of being his town’s only authority figure. Though not insecure, Sharp is a lonely man seeking companionship, something that he yearns for in his misplaced affection for Mrs. Bishop. Sharp requires Willis to channel profound sadness while expressing very little.
One of the film’s most moving scenes occurs a little past the midpoint, after Sam and Suzy have been snatched from their little inlet reprieve, their Moonrise Kingdom tucked away from the world. In the first real conversation between Sharp and Sam, the former has taken over guardianship of Sam before the adults must once again figure out what to do with the wayward child. Over dinner, Sam tries to explain himself. Sharp assures him that he’ll figure things out before admitting that he once loved someone who didn’t love him back. The scene is not dialogue-heavy, but held together by a simple action—Sharp offering Sam a little bit of his beer. Though Sharp acknowledges that Sam is just a child, he recognizes the validity of Sam’s emotions. Even if they are the intense, unbridled passions of a preteen, it doesn’t make them any less real.
While Willis is not Moonrise Kingdom’s protagonist, he still manages to be something of the hero. Sharp is the first adult to finally hold his hand out to Sam both physically and metaphorically. Beyond being an empathetic, level-headed father figure, Captain Sharp is Sam’s counterpart. When Sharp reaches out to Sam at the film’s climax and assumes the position of foster father, he disavows one love in place of another. He realizes that the companionship he once sought from Mrs. Bishop can be fulfilled in another way, just as Sam had thought he could only seek love and kinship from Suzy. Both Sam and Sharp come of age, discerning love as something that takes many forms, all of which are as gratifying and as real as the next.
Moonrise Kingdom would signify, for many, one of Willis’ last truly committed performances. This would be in addition to Rian Johnson’s Looper, released that same year, and Shyamalan’s Split sequel, Glass in 2018, which saw Willis reprising his role from Unbreakable. But it’s Willis’ tender characterization of Captain Sharp that many of us still look back on with the kind of admiration and fondness we might grant the memory of our own father. Gilman’s own memory of the actor adds another dimension to an unassuming role that nonetheless stands out in the performer’s career, in a film that unwittingly acted as one of a handful of send-offs. It displays the breadth of the actor’s talent, and his understated ability to act as a film’s beating heart.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.