If there is one thing that stands out about The Last King of Scotland (the film), it is how much Forest Whitaker becomes the titular character. He doesn't contend himself with just portraying Idi Amin; he wears the role like a second skin, metamorphosizing into Idi Amin utterly effortlessly. The menace that he exudes in each frame is so real, you will feel your skin crawl.
Director Kevin Macdonald and the actors really take a political thriller novel plot and raise it to a level way beyond the limitations of that genre. At once a character study, a biting commentary on Western follies in Africa, and a learning on how monsters are created, the film is smart, funny, and though largely fictional, as real an account of Amin's regime and behavior as any.
The latter may come from Macdonald's past - he is a first-time narrative director who has done some great work in documentaries - but a large part of the credit must also go to Whitaker and James McAvoy. His are the kind of performances that serve as the light to reflect the central performance in a film, and though his contribution in making Amin real may seem un-apparent, it is very much there.
McAvoy plays a fictional doctor called Nicholas Garrigan based on various real people. A young, ostentatious doctor, who on a whim - literally - decides to come to Uganda to help with a medical outpost in a remote village, he treats it all as a great trip. When fate takes him to the newly self-appointed Ugandan President, he doesn't realize what he is getting into. Amin convinces him to be his personal physician, and soon the doctor finds himself having a very good time.
Slowly, he becomes involved with the political intrigue and the growing madness of Amin, himself witness to and helpless to stop mass genocide. It is to McAvoy's credit that he plays Garrigan as a complete bastard. The portrayal is straight up, and helps to uncomfortably reaffirm one of the kinds of Western responses to Amin (the other being complete distrust as shown by the British embassy in the film).
What is more chilling is the way Whitaker actually chooses to play Amin. The humane side of him makes his evil even scarier. Whitaker's performance is of a charming and charismatic leader on one hand, and suddenly, as if though someone inside his head has snapped his fingers, he turns into a menacing schizophrenic who is also a mass murderer.
The schizophrenia is very real, and is so because of the lack of any cinematic trickery or character twitches used to usually represent it. Instead, director MacDonald and Whitaker keep Amin twitch-free, making the sudden switch to menace and paranoia all the more effective. This is something the director has down pat - the use of conspicuous absence of the bad to make its appearance shocking.
Most of the violence in the film is treated in a similar fashion. As gradually Garrigan changes from a happy-go-lucky lad to a man stuck in a savage land with no way out, the film shows the violence through his viewpoint. At first it is largely offscreen, and as he becomes more and more involved, it starts surfacing until it breaks into an explosion of gore in a scene where the lad actually realizes how deep he is in it. It crescendos in a final torture where the violence is not only real and on screen, it is also very very personal for Garrigan.
It is this decision to use Garrigan as a focal point in the narrative, doubtless taken from the novel it is based on, that keeps the film from becoming a standard thriller film. At least until the end. The third act is a mish-mash of thriller elements and tacked on tension. While the performances and the use of Garrigan as a conduit for the ever-increasing violence still works, the rest of the film just falls apart, as it ventures into standard Hollywood template territory.
It's not a bad piece of thriller, mind, but it just feels... I don't know, filmy? That is mostly because the rest of the film feels so real and is made with searing veracity. Macdonald's credit is to be acknowledged in making it so real that anything else feels fake, but it is Whitaker's performance that makes this film what it is. This is one of the most complete performances you will ever see on screen, and I, for one, felt privileged to watch it.