Finders Keepers Documentary Review Essay

Sundance Review: Documentary ‘Finders Keepers’ Is A Bizarre Story About The Custody Battle Over A Human Leg

The story at the heart of the documentary “Finders Keepers” is a completely bizarre one: the custody battle over a human leg, the ridiculous feud that ensues and the painful aftermath. In one corner you have John Wood, a disgraced heir with deep-rooted father issues and a drug habit, on the other you have an unscrupulous reptile in human form with his own issues.

A tale that made worldwide “weird news” headlines back in 2007, Wood lost his leg in a plane crash, the same misfortune that killed his father. After the crash, in a strange tribute to his departed dad, Wood decided to embalm and keep the appendage. Severely depressed after the death of his father, which he blamed himself for, and addicted to painkillers, Wood soon bottomed out spiritually and financially. Down and out, the leg was lost after Wood failed to pay his bills and the contents of his storage lockers were sold off to the highest bidder.

Enter Shannon Whisnant, an opportunistic redneck bargain hunter who trades in lost and found artifacts for profit. Whisnant fatefully buys a smoke cooker where the leg was bizarrely stored, and so what ensues is a very public, eventually sensationalized battle for the foot that Wood legally owns. But the fame-whoring Whisnant is obsessed with retaining it due to the brief media spotlight and attention it affords him.

“Finders Keepers” eventually reveals itself to be a film about ownership issues, identity, and ego amidst a lot of family dysfunction and two disparate personalities; a man who needs to reclaim a foot to make peace with his past and a vile huckster who’s grandstanding belies some darker issues about neglect. Whisnant is the more entertaining figure to be sure, but his unscrupulous low-life tendencies wear out his welcome quickly. This is a man who would literally step over his ailing mother for a dime.

And perhaps one of the disparities of “Finders Keepers” is how the doc has to balance a would-be soulful story about a man battling his demons and trying to earn redemption versus a rather hard-to-watch tale of a greedy and despicable reprobate who we’re suddenly asked to sympathize with way too late into the doc. And while this dichotomy give the film entertaining protagonist/antagonist dimension, it’s really at the expense of Wood’s more affecting and poignant tale.

In the doc’s favor is a black and white narrative that keeps growing more complex as the movie explores these characters more deeply. Wood, who struggles with addiction throughout, is his own self-destructive worst enemy. Under the influence he agrees to appear on idiotic talk shows, “Judge Judy“-esque courtroom farces and other media circus nonsense that further estrange him from the rest of his family, and his only tenuous connection to his father.

But unpleasant exploitation issues rear their head too. Whisnant clearly craves attention in front of the camera and the documentary enables his raging narcissism. It turns out Whisnant has his own daddy issues and this is where “Finders Keepers” gets further troubling, in trying to ask for our sympathies for a man, not only shown as beneath contempt earlier on, but one that the doc has spent most of its time quietly ridiculing. Frustrating in its execution, it’s as if the filmmakers Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel can’t help but smirk every time Whisnant is on screen, which is admittedly difficult to avoid, since the man is shown to be such a scumbag for most of the doc. But they also want it both ways, attempting to give Whisnant personal dimension after the caricature has already been drawn and soliciting empathy for Wood’s various sad and near-pathetic struggles. The uneven mix leaves a bad aftertaste.

The doc can be an admittedly fascinating tale of two unlikely strangers forced to deal with each other under bizarre circumstances, and the way their fates become inextricably tied together can be strangely absorbing. There are insights to be found in both men and their very human problems too. But “Finders Keepers” tries to find the humanity in the absurd, and while it surely has its share of moving moments, the conciliation of the sensational and profound is hard to reconcile. [B-]

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A man buys the contents of a storage locker at an auction in Maiden, N.C., in 2007. Inside he finds a grill and inside the grill he finds a human leg. More a foot than a leg, really, severed below the knee joint and mummified. Then the guy who lost the leg turns up and wants it back, and things get really weird.

A foolproof subject for a documentary? Right away, problems arise. Should this story be filmed with scant editorial intervention, slowly revealing the absurdity and humanity, like Errol Morris’s “Gates of Heaven?” (1978)? Or should it simply make fun of its subjects, like “The Jerry Springer Show”?

Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel’s “Finders Keepers” tries a little of both. The film veers from farce to tragedy and relates a twisted variation on the American Dream.

Opening with “Habanera” from George Bizet’s “Carmen” on the soundtrack, it takes on the air of a live action Warner Bros. cartoon. John Wood, who looks like Jeremy Renner might after a life of failure, self-loathing, and drug abuse, reenacts walking to the storage room and opening it to find the grill. This is odd because he is not the one who found the leg, but the one who lost it. And wants it back.

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The finder, Shannon “The Foot Man” Whisnant, a big-bellied, bearded man who would look at home in “Duck Dynasty,” has a high opinion of himself. (“I’m pretty smart. You probably figured that out by now.”) He wants to keep the leg because he sees it as the ticket to his life’s dream of being on TV. He’s already charging $3 to let people peek at it.

The local news has fun with the story, and when it escalates it is reported on the major networks. It seems Whisnant’s dream is coming true. Or are these media people just playing him for a fool?

They might be, but at this point Carberry and Tweel no longer are. They’ve seen beyond the stereotypes into their subjects’ humanity, however eccentric it may be. What starts out as a freak show ends up a poignant tale of tragedy, redemption, and the boon of taxidermy.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.

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