Kirsten Dunst brings her Marie Antoinette to Orlando in On Becoming a God in Central Florida
Krystal Stubbs is trashy. She is called as much in her first scene in Showtime's On Becoming a God in Central Florida, when her purple eye shadow is wiped off her face in reprimand. But we don't really need to be told. She wears denim-on-denim, errs on the side of showing too much cleavage, bedazzles her bras, and looks at home straddling a bright pink ATV. She lives in Florida, is married to an insurance salesman, and works at a water park. The world has already made up its mind about women like Krystal.
Yet Kirsten Dunst, who plays Krystal and serves as an executive producer for On Becoming a God, will assure you that you don't. Not really. You realize this during the pilot, when Krystal leans over her boss' desk and hisses "I'm not some sucker" in response to his accusation that she's involved in a scam. And, well, she is involved in a scam: Her husband Travis (Alexander Skarsgård) is a devotee of an Amway-like MLM pyramid scheme hawking worthless household essentials for Founders American Merchandise, or "FAM," and she is expected to be his cheerleader. But Krystal's reaction makes it clear: no matter how it looks from the outside, don't ever mistake her for a fool.
The moment is one of many things about On Becoming a God in Central Florida that shatters expectations. For another, On Becoming a God is an incredibly strange and off-kilter show — The Favourite director Yorgos Lanthimos was originally attached to helm the project, and it's easy to see why he was attracted to the darkly comic material. It's also Emmy-worthy-great, which you might not expect from a series that spent three years in limbo, bouncing from AMC to YouTube Premium to Showtime, where it finally premieres Sunday (the first two episodes can already be streamed for free online). Then there is the fact that it might very well be Dunst's best performance of her career.
Oddly enough, what Dunst brings to her portrayal of Krystal has its roots in her turn as the queen of Versailles in 2007's Marie Antoinette. Known to history as a spoiled brat who saccharinely dismissed the starving peasants of France, Dunst instead poured compassion into her portrayal of the former Archduchess of Austria, who was married off to the heir apparent of France at only 14. In Marie Antoinette, Dunst gives us a portrait of a woman whose determination ultimately allows her to take control of the unfair circumstances thrust upon her — and had the last queen of France instead been a lower-middle-class water park employee living outside Orlando in the year 1992, she might have looked a lot like Krystal Stubbs.
I don't think I really understood the physical mechanics of the phrase "glint in her eye" until Dunst's Krystal, who relies on feminine guiles to get her way but will quickly resort to a kind of bossy ruthlessness when desperation demands. Dunst's eyes flicker from charming to flinty in a blink, but the cunning in them never dims even when dealing with the vacant, brainwashed devotees of FAM. It's not exactly that she's smarter than everyone else around her — family friends Ernie (Mel Rodriguez) and Bets (Beth Ditto) are given the same earnest treatment by the script and actors, despite their somewhat farcical natures — but just that she has a more powerful motivation to not hit rock bottom. "I won't be poor again," she tells Travis during one fight, not breaking eye contact. "I won't."
When Krystal gets sucked into the FAM family herself, it is on her own terms (specifically by using a water aerobics class "splashercise" to rope in new members). It turns out she's quite good at manipulating the people around her when she puts her mind to it, and suckering her "downline" begins to become second-nature as the season progresses. It's eat or get eaten, rather literally. Still, she is less Skyler-White-in-Breaking-Bad than she is mom-you-pass-without-thinking-twice-in-Walmart. "[Krystal's] journey is more human. It's a series of compromises, as opposed to a vendetta," explained co-creator Robert Funke to Vanity Fair. In interviews, Dunst has addressed pouring parts of herself into her character, like — being a new mother herself — making sure that in every scene Krystal's baby's location was accounted for.
But for all my admiration of Krystal as a character, she is not without her defeats. In one scene, she holds her baby as a banker explains that they will have to put a lock on her house. "I know how it works, thanks," she interrupts with the weary voice of someone who has been chewed up by the false hope of the American dream before. Dunst generally plays "exhausted" extremely well, from her posture to her curtness when yet another thing gets piled on top of her. She doesn't want the yacht or the helicopter her husband dreams of; she'd be satisfied just with health care.
In my favorite of Dunst's moments in On Becoming a God, the one that should get her that Emmy nom, she is in a fight with her husband. Travis comically insists that Krystal should be begging him to be too tired from work to have sex with her, a routine she endures with the heard it all before expression that she wears around the men in her life. "You should be begging me not to get hard," Travis finally blurts and Krystal's expression hardens into contempt. "I don't beg," she replies in a low and dangerous voice, punctuating each word. It's spectacular.
As if to upend any remaining skeptics, the first episode of On Becoming a God ends with Krystal massacring alligators. It is a primal scene in a show that is preoccupied with false appearances, a kind of raw act of justice in a world that otherwise doesn't have any, at least not for people like Krystal. It would play as pure, outrageous comedy if you didn't so believe in Dunst's performance. As she catches her breath, teeth gritted, the exit music starting to play, something flickers across her face that makes you check your laughter. In that powerful half-breath of a moment, Krystal doesn't seem so funny at all.