In THE ONLY THRILL, Diane Keaton and Sam Shepard play the part of long-time companions from a small town, with Ms. Keaton portraying a widow named Carol, and Mr. Shepard playing a taciturn man named Reece who refuses to divorce his comatose wife and declines to tell Carol his true feelings for her although he commits adultery with her for 30 years.
THE ONLY THRILL is a poignant, wistful story of what happens when people form relationships without commitment. Director Peter Masterson weaves this tale in thoughtful beats which span almost 30 years, evoking the beauty of his first film, THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL, which so ably portrayed life in a small town in its stillness and profundity.
The story here opens in 1966 when Carol walks into Reece’s vintage clothing store to solicit her seamstress business. Reece has given up a successful career as a land developer after a tragic car accident left his wife in a deep coma indefinitely on life-support. While Reece has already voiced his position that he will never divorce her, it is clear he’s withdrawn from life a bit and prefers things that way. He and Carol, whose husband has passed away, begin an affair, however. The story then moves to 1978. After 12 years, Carol and Reece have settled into a comfortable and loving relationship. They have a regular routine – watching a matinee every Wednesday afternoon and playing games such as pairing movie stars and matching them to movies they appeared in together.
Carol then receives word that her sister is terminally ill in Canada and makes the decision that she must go and live with her sister until she dies.
Though Reece protests, he has never declared his love nor been able to commit to Carol. In their last time together, Carol tells him that he is the “only thrill” she will ever need, a cryptic way of telling him that she loves him.
Meanwhile, Reece and Carol’s children, Tom and Katherine, meet and, almost immediately, Tom declares that Katherine is “the one,” although he seems unable to tell Katherine this. A year later, Reece visits Carol in Canada and is still unprepared to express his love or ask for a commitment. The pair are now in their late fifties. The movie implies that Reece’s comatose wife is still lingering somewhere. At this point, we also learn that Katherine has run off to an acting gig in Tennessee, leaving Tom adrift.
The film jumps to 1990. Tom is a successful video entrepreneur, and his father is a wizened old man. Shepard does a startling job revealing how our sins bind us over time. His character has withdrawn from life almost entirely, his shop is a mess, and he spends his time doing very little.
Carol and Katherine are back in town, presumably because Carol’s sister has finally passed away. Reece offers to help Carol look for an apartment. The two are now in their late sixties, and Carol finally looks Reece in the eye and asks him who the love of his life was? Reece strongly suggests it was Carol, but he still can’t say it. Tom invites Katherine over to his expensive home and, in a different way, can’t seem to hold onto her either.
The film ends in 1996. Carol and Katherine again visit the town at the end of Carol’s life. These last scenes, in which Reece realizes his folly, why his life stalled and sees the reflection of that waste in his 40-something son, is a tearjerker.
This isn’t the first time Diane Keaton as Carol and Sam Shepard as Reece have worked together, and it shows. These veterans give radiant performances as a couple of people who age right before our eyes. Their makeup is wonderful, but their acting is superb.
The premise of THE ONLY THRILL is that romantic love is something to be cherished and fought for strongly. While there is truth in this, romantic love is never enough and is certainly not “the only thrill.” What this movie does very well, however, is to show how our pride and our inability to be vulnerable and thus truly intimate with another person isolates and eventually kills us. Reece and Carol sleep together on their first date, and Tom and Katherine on their second, so the sexual morality of these characters is not high nor perhaps even realistic for citizens in such a small town in America. The theme song of the movie is a song from the 1940s titled “Don’t Save Love for a Rainy Day,” summing up the movie’s premise perfectly.
(HH, LLL, S, A, D) Humanist worldview; 9 obscenities & 19 profanities; two implied adulteries & one implied fornication; alcohol use; and, cigarette use.