Frances Austen (Dennis) is a thirtysomething woman who lives alone in the huge Vancouver apartment she inherited from her late parents. One day while hosting a dinner party she spies a 19-year-old boy (Burns) sitting alone in the rain on a bench in the park next to her apartment building. Feeling sorry for him, she invites him inside to dry off. He doesn't speak, but she appreciates his company and invites him to spend the night in her guest room. When he awakes the next morning, he discovers that she's locked him in the room.
The Boy still accepts her hospitality but finds her behavior odd. Finally he manages to pry open a window and leave via the building's fire escape. We learn that he's not mute at all; he's a middle class kid who splits time between his family's suburban home and a squalid houseboat where his hippie sister Nina (Benton) lives with her American boyfriend.
Unhappy with that situation, the Boy returns to Frances and her apartment, only to find that her concern for him is starting to take a disturbing detour.
Filmed a few months before M*A*S*H, this is basically Altman's first "Altman" film, where he got to use some of his favorite techniques (improvised dialogue, atmosphere becoming more important than story, panning and zooming, complex female characters) for the first time.
This film has examples of the following tropes:
- Abhorrent Admirer:
- Dr. Stevenson, an old friend of her parents who Frances socializes with, propositions her, but she turns him down.Frances: I don't find him attractive...he smells like an old man.
- Frances is this to the Boy as well.
- Dr. Stevenson, an old friend of her parents who Frances socializes with, propositions her, but she turns him down.
- Arc Words: "I want you to make love to me."
- Badass Beard: The pimp in the Red Light District has a huge, long beard that makes him resemble Garth Hudson from The Band.
- Disposable Sex Worker: Sylvia
- Downer Ending: Frances has just committed a brutal murder, descended into psychosis, and has trapped the Boy in her apartment. Whatever she has planned for the Boy, things will not end well for him.
- Draft Dodging: Nina's boyfriend Nick is an American who moved to Vancouver to avoid the draft, though you only learn this from a couple snarky remarks the Boy makes about him (calling him "the war hero" and telling him "my country's not at war").
- Emotionless Girl: Frances, for the most part.
- Fanservice: The Boy is nude for a good part of the film, but the film uses several devices to avoid showing too much, like shots of him from the back, Censor Suds in the bath scenes, the Modesty Bedsheet and the Modesty Towel (even though there's no good reason to cover himself with a towel when he's in the apartment alone). Nina gets some brief topless shots, along with Toplessness from the Back and, again, Censor Suds.
- Female Gaze: One online critic has argued that the depiction of the Boy falls under this trope. Not only does Frances objectify him, but by never revealing his name the film does it as well. Though it was directed by a man, the screenplay was written by a woman (Gillian Freeman).
- The Film of the Book: Adapted from a 1965 novel of the same name by Peter Miles.
- Idle Rich: Frances doesn't seem to have a job and apparently inherited a good chunk of money from her parents.
- In the Style of...: Roman Polański, Ingmar Bergman and, more distantly, Alfred Hitchcock all clearly influenced Robert Altman here, along with his own Signature Style beginning to emerge.
- Incest Subtext: The Boy and Nina have a relationship overflowing with this. The scene where she disrobes and gets into a bath while he's sitting nearby, then drags him into the tub with her especially stands out.Nina: (to the Boy, while writhing topless on a bed after the bath) I wish you weren't my brother...Do you wish I wasn't your sister?
- Intoxication Ensues: The Boy gives Frances some cookies his sister made, but she doesn't know they have marijuana in them. It loosens her up a bit.
- Mask of Sanity Frances just seems repressed and awkward for most of the movie, but turns psychotic at the end.
- Mistaken for Gay: When she goes to procure a prostitute for the Boy, everyone assumes Frances is a lesbian (her explanations that it's "for a friend" only increase the suspicion).
- No Name Given:
- Old Maid: Frances.
- Red Light District: Frances ventures into one to find a prostitute for the Boy.
- Spiritual Successor: This film, Images and 3 Women form a "character study of disturbed women" trilogy in the Altman filmography.
- Third-Person Person: During their awkward attempt at lovemaking, Sylvia the prostitute keeps asking the Boy "Don't you like Sylvia?"
- Trojan Gauntlet: Frances goes to a birth control clinic in anticipation of seducing the Boy. She's profusely uncomfortable, in part because of the frank talk about sex from the other women in the waiting room. When she's asked why she wants birth control, Frances lies and says she's about to get married.
- Villain Protagonist: Frances, though her villainy doesn't get fully established until the last act.
- The Voiceless: The Boy though he finally breaks his silence with Frances in a case of OOC Is Serious Business.
- What the Hell Is That Accent?: Frances has a peculiar Mid-Atlantic accent that seems out of place for western Canada, except there are some hints that her parents were English (her parents' old friends who attend the dinner party are mostly English). Still, she's played by Nebraska native Sandy Dennis (she did have a reputation for throwing weird little quirks into her acting, though).
- Whole Plot Reference: It's more-or-less a gender-flipped version of The Collector infused with elements of Persona (with Frances as Alma and the Boy as Elisabet).