Finders Keepers is easily among the oddest, saddest and most hysterical documentaries I’ve ever seen. Is it a tragedy? A farce? A mystery? A Flannery O’Connor-style character study of rural Americana? It’s all of these things and more thanks to the deft direction of Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel.
The film opens with middle-aged protagonist John Wood walking towards a mini-storage facility in Maiden, North Carolina. It was there, in Unit 48, that Wood stashed the majority of his worldly possessions in the summer of 2005 after he was evicted from his house for failure to pay his rent.
We soon learn that Wood lost his leg in a private plane crash that took the life of his father in 2004, and subsequently developed a crippling addiction to painkillers. Wood decided to keep the amputated leg for personal reasons, used embalming fluid to preserve it, and stashed the mummified leg inside a BBQ smoker inside the storage unit.
When Wood failed to pay the facility’s fees, the entire contents of his locker went to auction, and the grill (and the leg inside it) was sold to winning bidder Shannon Whisnant, who calls himself a “flea market entrepreneur.” Whisnant comes across as a country-fied Donald Trump– a blustery blowhard so full of an inflated sense of self-importance that he fails to realize his astounding level of asshat-ery.
Whisnant, a slick talker who claims he could sell ice to an Eskimo, acknowledges a lifelong desire to be famous and sees his good “finders keepers” fortune as a sign that it’s his time to shine. He decides to turn the foot into a bone-a-fide tourist attraction, charging $3 for adults and $1 for children who want to take a peek at the petrified podiatry.
When Wood reveals himself as the foot’s rightful owner, Whisnant refuses to capitulate. Instead, he creates a website and TV ad to promote the outrageous attraction, sells t-shirts that say “I’m Friends With the Foot Man” and gets a “FTSMOKER1” vanity license plate. The bizarro foot feud between the duo brings them regional, national and eventually international media attention, with a German talk show even flying them over to debate their claims on television.
If it sounds like a Southern Gothic freak show worthy of Jerry Springer or News of the Weird, it totally is. But it’s to Carberry and Tweel’s credit that their interviews with the Whisnant and Wood families reveal the deeper stories behind the sensationalism.
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the aggressive Whisnant was badly abused as a boy, leaving him desperate for attention and with a sizable chip on his shoulder to prove himself worthy of respect. Wood was the wealthy son of a top executive at the Ethan Allen furniture company who grew up with a skating rink in his basement. “Anybody who was anybody had their birthday party at John Wood’s house,” Whisnant recalls with resentment. “I was a nobody.” Wood, meanwhile, found that his drug addiction drove a serious wedge between him and his mother, who comes across as cold and uncaring in interviews.
In the end, what could have easily been a reality TV train wreck proves to be a thought provoking and emotional exploration of fortune, family dynamics and our cultural fascination with fame. It’s also an early contender for a Best Documentary Oscar nomination… –Bret Love