Henry Darger grew up a ward of an asylum for feeble-minded children and spent most of his adult life as a janitor and a recluse who had no family and only one friend who lived thousands of miles away. As he was dying, though, in the early 1970s, retired and alone, his landlord found his apartment filled with more than 300 paintings and a 15,000-page, fully illustrated novel. The film seeks to piece Henry Darger together, through his novel, his journals, his paintings and through the recollections of his neighbors. "His reality and unreality was so mixed up, you never knew what to think," says the landlord.
That's certainly true of us, the audience, looking in, but it also appears that, at some point in his life, reality and unreality became mixed up for him as well. The eventual loss of a treasured picture in his house creates a rift between his imaginary world and the real one. Despite writing hundreds of pages searching metaphorically for the picture, even having his namesake character General Darger go undercover, change sides and ransack fictional libraries, he can't find the real picture in his storybook life.
As director Jessica Yu weaves these competing narratives -- Darger's novel and his journals -- it becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of which narrative is fact and which is fiction. Darger himself seems to become confused, wondering if his petition to adopt a real child is being impeded by his assertion that, if denied, he'll make the Christian Abiannian army lose his fictional war.
It's an incredibly compelling tale made better by the stunning narration of Dakota Fanning and the readings of Darger's works by Larry Pine (The Royal Tennenbaums) and through the painstaking animation of Darger's paintings. His prose style is at once decadent and childlike, drawing as deeply from the Bible as it does from comic books and children's stories, creating a narrative voice unlike any I've ever heard. And a film unlike any I've ever seen.