At the beginning of Downsizing, we meet Paul Safranek (Matt Damon). He dropped out of med school to take care of his mother in his cluttered childhood home. They talk about the recent breakthrough of miniaturizing people, which can shrink a person down to five inches tall. Apparently, this process will save the world from environmental crisis because it will minimize the amount of waste man produces. His mother says, “They can shrink people down, fly to Mars, but they can’t cure my fibromyalgia? All this fuss about the environment—the world’s going to end tomorrow. I’m in pain. I can’t breathe. Doesn’t that matter?” Her words aren’t the complaint of self-absorbed senior who watches Murder She Wrote all day, but the lament of a woman who feels her condition is too small for anyone to care.
“Lots of people are in pain, Mom. In all sorts of ways,” Paul says as he gives her a shot. This interaction is the thesis of the film: whether it’s health related, financial, relational, or environmental, humans are subject to various states of suffering and they need to find contentment amidst it. The story rambles quite a bit, but ultimately presents two methods of finding contentment: either by avoiding suffering or immersing oneself in it.
Over the years, Paul loses his mom, gets married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig), and begins feeling the discontent of many in the middle class. He’s not wealthy, but he yearns for more expensive goods; he’s frustrated with the demands of prudence which constrict his desires. They meet up with another couple who miniaturized themselves, and the husband expounds on its benefits: “Downsizing is about saving yourself. It takes all the pressure right off. Especially money pressure.” He tells Paul that he doesn’t need to learn to be content because once he’s miniaturized, the value of his money will rise exponentially and all restraints will fall away. Paul and Audrey sign up to join a miniaturized community called Leisureland. However, Paul is the only one who gets miniaturized because Audrey gets scared and divorces him a year later. To escape his pain, he joins the party of his neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and wakes up on the floor from a drug induced stupor. It’s from this position on the ground that he notices the damaged prosthetic of a Vietnamese maid named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau).
This moment is reminiscent of a parable from G.K. Chesterton’s Tremendous Trifles. He tells the story of two boys, Peter and Paul (no relation to Paul Safranek), who can have one wish granted to them. Paul wishes to become a giant so he can walk to the Himalayas and Niagara Falls in a day. His gets his wish, but he’s disheartened because he’s too large to appreciate the things that once evoked wonder in him. Peter, on the other hand, becomes small, and his yard transforms into an “immense plain, covered with a tall green jungle and above which…rose strange trees each with a head like the sun in symbolic pictures, with gigantic rays of silver and a huge heart of gold.” Because he’s small, everything he previously missed is brought to his attention. The same is true for Paul Safranek. From his small, humiliated posture, things he would have otherwise missed (the limp) come into sharper focus.
Learning Paul is a doctor, Ngoc Lan Tran takes him to her impoverished community where he can help her sick neighbors. She also convinces him to join her cleaning crew, and he experiences the day to day of her life in the slums. The filth, clutter, and junk Paul is immersed in represents the suffering the elite have tried to exclude. The minimalist aesthetic of their homes and clothing mirrors their philosophy to do away with anything extraneous, and only concern themselves with what they consider essential. Yet their idea of what’s essential and what’s extraneous has been poisoned; they believe pleasure is essential but suffering and decay should be excluded.
Dusan laughs when he learns that Paul is a part of the cleaning crew because he appears to have sunk even lower. It’s true, Paul is diminished in size, social class, and ego. Yet after the deconstruction of his pride, he’s reassembled as a more helpful, compassionate individual whose purpose extends beyond the confines of self-gratification to selflessly helping others.
Dusan takes Paul and the Ngoc Lan Tran to the first miniaturized community in Norway. The residents appear to be a part of a hippy commune—more connected to the earth than an elite city like Leisureland. While there, Paul learns that the residents have built an underground vault as a counter-measure against extinction. They hope that their descendants can reemerge 8,000 years later and repopulate the earth. Upon hearing this, he’s tempted to escape with them; he wants to believe that the humiliating loss of his wife and the rest of his suffering were meant to bring him to the grand purpose of saving humankind. He originally moved to Leisureland because his net worth would increase exponentially, and he’s now tempted with the same alluring idea that his life can finally be worth more. However, he returns to Dusan and Ngoc Lan Tran because he realizes how important they are to him. He’s no longer begrudgingly tolerant of what he has, but finally sees that his small, seemingly insignificant friendships are actually worth more than any scheme to become acquire more money or become immortalized.
The Norwegian community began out of a love for the earth and a desire to save it through an altered lifestyle. Despite their good intentions at the outset, they don’t love or appreciate the earth any more than the minimalists in Leisureland; they no longer want to slow earth’s decay, but flee from it entirely. In fact, they’re so opposed to the thought of decay that they want to escape to a self-sustaining simulacrum of earth: a haven which can endlessly replenish itself.
As they fly back to Leisureland, Paul laments the world’s inevitable destruction. Ngoc Lan Tran tells him, “When you know death come soon, you look around things more close.” These words encourage Paul, and the film ends with him continuing to help the poor. While the movie doesn’t fully explore how to look at things more closely, Ngoc Lan Tran’s words still provide the answer for finding contentment amidst suffering and decay. She reaffirms the thesis that suffering is a part of life, but her actions reveal that people aren’t meant to escape it. Rather, they’re supposed to immerse themselves in it to alleviate what they can. Furthermore, the inevitability of decay leads people not to despair, but to an appreciation for what they have; they only need to “look more close.”
Chesterton affirms this by saying that we must fix “our attention almost fiercely on the facts actually before us, force them to turn into adventures…the object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing.” Chesterton claims that we find contentment amidst suffering by training our sight to see the goodness of what’s already in front us. Such sight is only developed through humiliation, because only then is one no longer too big to notice the “tremendous trifles” which surround us. Safranek, instead of shutting himself in a minimalist “utopia” which is really just an arid vacuum, enters a world in which pain runs rampant and filth fills every nook and cranny, but so do compassion, care, and beauty.