Film of the week: Downsizing plots an unpredictable course into American purgatory

Alexander Payne miniaturises Matt Damon and forces him to face up to some big issues in this frequently surprising high-concept drama.

Henry K Miller

from our February 2018 issue

Matt Damon as Paul Safranek and Christoph Waltz as Dusan Mirkovic in Downsizing

Matt Damon as Paul Safranek and Christoph Waltz as Dusan Mirkovic in Downsizing

Spoiler alert: this review reveals a plot twist

The audacity of Alexander Payne’s new film lies in its willingness to ditch its high-concept premise and move on – and then do it again. As might be inferred from the title, Downsizing takes place in a world where people choose to be shrunk for reasons of economy, more or less, but Payne is wise enough not to get caught up in the thickets of practical what-ifs and what-abouts, and his film has the rare quality of purposeful unpredictability. Tonally, its range extends from the Midwestern melancholy of his most recent film Nebraska (2013) to the broad caricatural satire of his first, Citizen Ruth (1996), and beyond. What’s new is, appropriately, the sense of scale – the giant vista of a perfect, sterile American city – and of sweep, with time-shifts of years coming unexpectedly.

One such leap elides the decade between downsizing’s invention by a team of Norwegian scientists, for whom it is earnestly intended as a means to combat overpopulation, overconsumption and waste, to its commercial exploitation in the US a decade or so later, where it has become a way to get rich, simply by reducing overheads.

Such is the appeal to Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig), Nebraskans who choose to get small out of frustration: the same time-shift reveals Paul to be stuck in a rut, still living in his childhood home after his mother’s death. These scenes work because Payne plays down the fantasy element in favour of social observation – the shrinking procedure itself is sold like Tupperware used to be, at specially hosted parties, and the Safraneks’ problems are painfully contemporary. But the film jumps the tracks, for the better, when Audrey – stop reading if you haven’t seen the film, or a full trailer – welshes on the deal, backing out while Paul, oblivious, goes ahead, and she leaves, never to be seen again.

With Audrey’s abrupt departure, what looked set to be a comedy involving the differences between the tiny and the full-scale becomes something quite different. The downsized live in dedicated communities, just like the outside world but in miniature, under protective domes; what is sold as a new life turns out to be the old one of aimless consumption, status anxiety and petty gripes, where the hot water in the McMansion comes out scalding and the neighbour makes a racket.

Downsizing (2017)

It is when Paul encounters said neighbour, louche Serbian smuggler Dusan (Christoph Waltz), in a brilliantly chaotic party scene, that things become really interesting. Just as the audience is getting the point – that the downsized, given the opportunity to start society from scratch, have merely recreated an American purgatory, class and ethnic divisions included – Payne blithely has Dusan spell it out, allowing the film to turn again.

Paul comes to find fulfilment in good work, when he helps Dusan’s cleaner Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) with her limp. She is a one-legged Vietnamese refugee who was downsized as punishment, and what might read on the page like self-serving liberal fantasy is anything but on the screen. Ngoc Lan is a good Christian; from her perspective, which the film largely adopts, Paul is doing nothing more than his duty by helping her and the mostly Latino denizens of the shantytown where she has been made to live.

Ngoc Lan is a caricature like everyone else. She speaks in broken English, and Downsizing has come under attack for this; but apart from anything else, Hong Chau’s performance, which she herself has righteously defended, is among the strongest things in the film, making the pliable, endlessly affable Paul her foil.

Damon with Ngoc Lan Tran as Hong Chau

Damon with Ngoc Lan Tran as Hong Chau

The film’s crux comes when it transpires that the valiant effort to downsize has been for nought, and humanity is doomed to extinction all the same. The cynic Dusan (with his partner-in-crime Konrad, a tremendous cameo by Udo Kier) and the Christian Ngoc Lan decide to stay on the earth’s surface and make the best of it, while Paul is tempted to join the inhabitants of the original Norwegian ‘community of the small’ in an underground shelter where they and their descendants will sit out the next few millennia, preserving the species. (The big decision is, characteristically, accompanied by a perfectly observed wheeled-suitcase joke.)

While Downsizing is not not about the end of human life on earth, it confronts the prospect with minimal sentiment, and uses it to ask questions about what the good life might consist of, here and now. Its critique of overconsumption is aesthetic, or philosophical, but not especially ‘green’; though it abhors greed and selfishness, it is unashamedly individualistic.

 

 

In the February 2018 issue of Sight & Sound

Alexander Payne’s ingenious Downsizing imagines a world where people can opt to be shrunk to help tackle overpopulation and climate change. Here he explains the film’s political ambitions, its slow gestation and why he’s so gloomy about the future of the planet. By Philip Horne.

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