The Only Thrill
1997, R, 120 min. Directed by Peter Masterson. Starring Diane Keaton, Sam Shepard, Diane Lane, Robert Patrick, Tate Donovan, Sharon Lawrence.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 13, 1998
For Reece McHenry (Shepard) and Carol Fritzsimmons (Keaton), the love they share has been the defining characteristic -- the only thrill -- of their lives over the last 30 years. Though defining, this love is unarticulated and undemonstrative and these inadequacies pave the way for its downfall. The story begins in the mid 1960s and continues through to the mid 1990s. Reece, whose wife lies unseen and offscreen in a coma throughout the entire picture, is the owner of a small used-clothing store on the dusty main street of a small rural town. (The Only Thrill was shot in Bastrop, Lockhart, Martindale, and Austin during the winter of 1996.) Into Reece's life comes the widowed contract seamstress Carol. Over the years, this pair's relationship comes to be organized around their Wednesday afternoon rendezvous, when the couple would ritualistically slip off to the afternoon matinee at the town's only movie theatre and then stop in for drinks at the local tavern before retiring home to press their own copy of carnal knowledge. Meanwhile, fate also plays a hand in the lives of Reece's and Carol's teenage children (Lane and Patrick) who, despite never having been introduced, manage to cross paths nevertheless and become the great loves of each other's lives, although they never stick around long enough to let their romance fully blossom. Years pass in the same pattern until the fatal illness of Carol's sister in Canada intervenes. Lacking any declaration of love from Reece, Carol moves to Toronto to nurse her ailing sis. Though Reece and Carol meet up again a few more times, Reece's inability to express his true feelings continues to keep the pair separated. The movie's only mystery is whether or not the next generation is doomed to repeat the mistakes of its elders. Shepard and Keaton (who have appeared together before in Baby Boom and Crimes of the Heart) are pleasing and believable as the stunted lovers, especially when enacting their early middle-aged bloom. The physical markers of time's passage are less believable, however, relying too heavily on greasepaint, hobbled steps, and Reece's overt comments that his memory is failing. These slips are typical of The Only Thrill's distracting inattention to detail throughout. The comatose wife to whom Reece is so dedicated is strangely never visited by him; the Canadian movie theatre glimpsed in one scene prominently sports the logos of the American theatre chain, ACT III; the specter of Vietnam is raised in the opening sequence (set in the year 1966) but is never mentioned again, which is something like the theatrical taboo against introducing a gun in the first act and then never using it; and, personally, I prefer that when two characters die of a fatal illness, the plot-twisting disease at least be accorded the respect of having a name. Recounted almost as a series of vignettes, The Only Thrill offers tantalizing glimpses of love unfulfilled, but most of the really interesting stuff remains out of sight.