The tragic end to Bruce Willis’ career — aphasia that challenges his speaking and cognition — shouldn’t befall anyone. Yet, as Matt Zoller Seitz points out in an incisive reading of the actor’s oeuvre, Willis long ago chose a path that would eerily presage his eventual diagnosis.

You could say Willis’s career was never the same after Pulp Fiction — you could also say it never recovered. He had built a gilded cage for himself, and it was hard to get out. His off-brand, often indie-film performances indicated he didn’t want to be defined solely by glowerers and killers any more than he had wanted to be confined to playing wiseasses back in the Moonlighting days. But whenever he played “character” roles, as in Breakfast of Champions, The Siege, Hart’s War, Alpha Dog, Fast Food Nation, and The Astronaut Farmer, he didn’t pop, as the filmmakers clearly wanted him to. Willis was too subtle to just rumble into a scene and mulch it — an approach his more acclaimed peers (from Jack Nicholson and Robert Duvall to Billy Bob Thornton and John Malkovich) were willing and able to take. For all the manic charisma Willis displayed early in his career, he was unwilling (or unable) to go big in the manner of a movie star hamming it up. He was nuanced in the best and worst way.