Finders Keepers Amazon Instant Video Directed by Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel Starring Shannon Whisnant and John Wood The Orchard Running Time: 82 minutes Release Date: October 2, 2015
I used to hear the saying “finders keepers” quite much when I was a kid. It was usually followed by “losers weepers.” You know the deal; a friend of yours finds something really cool lying around and gets excited about it as if were a glorious treasure, that is until you see it and realize that it actually belongs to you and you have been looking for it for what seems like the longest time. You tell your friend this, ask them if you can have it back, but unfortunately…
“Finders keepers, losers weepers!” The little creep’s mocking tone doesn’t help matters one bit. You hear that less as you mature into adulthood because that just isn’t the kind of thing grown-ups say to each other. At least you would think that. A new documentary aptly titled Finders Keepers begs to differ with an unusual but quintessentially American tale of two men, a barbecue grill, and the severed limb said grill happened to contain that they battled over in full view of the nation and its media that always becomes instantly enthralled by such insanity.
The first star of this bizarre real-life fable is John Wood, a resident of the North Carolina town of Maiden who lost one of his leg and foot in a 2004 plane crash that took the life of his father. After recovering the severed limb, Wood wanted to preserve it so he could have the skin stripped away and use it as part of a rather odd monument he was creating to honor his late father’s memory. Unfortunately for him, in his quest to keep the leg from rotting away into a putrid mess (which temporarily involved housing it in the freezer of a Hardee’s that employed a friend) after being evicted, Wood stashed it inside of a barbecue grill he kept locked away in a storage unit….which he failed to keep up with on the monthly rental fee. The storage company then put everything Wood kept in the unit up for auction three years after the plane crash and the grill wound up being purchased by the second star of our story, a local entrepreneur by the name of Shannon Whisnant.
When Whisnant discovered what the grill wasn’t some stray bit of driftwood, the sensible thing would be for the man to do the neighborly thing and give Wood his missing leg back. You would think that anyway. But if that happened then there would be no reason for Finders Keepers to be anything but a short human interest story on your local news program one dull evening. Word gets around quickly about the weird prize mistakenly dropped into Whisnant’s lap and overnight he becomes a local celebrity, a status he intends to exploit for all it is worth by assuming the nickname “The Foot Man.”
Whisnant refuses to give Wood his leg back and parlays his legally bestowed possession of the limb into a much-needed supplement to his regular income. Eventually the story reaches the European shores and both Wood and Whisnant are being invited to appear on a popular German talk show. The battle over the leg is even granted a Hollywood ending when it gets resolved in a court of law, and by that I mean the syndicated court show Judge Mathis.
To quote Don King, “Only in America!”
In the hands of directors Brian Carberry and Clay Tweel – with a page-long list of producers that includes comedy heavyweights with a knack for oddball Americana like Seth Gordon (The King of Kong, Horrible Bosses) and Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) – Finders Keepers fashions the Wood/Whisnant rivalry into a fascinating and poignant narrative that would had to have been an original screenplay had it not all been true.
Both men are presented to us as flawed individuals and decent men struggling to do the best they can with what they were handed in life. Wood came from a very well-off family in Maiden and enjoyed a privileged upbringing that has curdled into an adulthood almost brought to a premature conclusion by self-loathing and an addiction to drugs and alcohol. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Whisnant, a big dreamer who desires to be completely self-made and known to millions around the world for his particular skill set of being able to sell just about anything to anyone at anytime. The film positions him as the villain due to his steadfast refusal to give Wood back his leg, but he never really becomes a bad man even as his insistence on keeping Wood’s severed limb proves to be his undoing in many ways.
As the conflict that should never have been escalates to the point of international infamy, the families of both men can do little but sit back and watch it all play out. Wood’s relatives help him cope with the loss of his leg and the spiritual toll it’s taking on a guy weakened enough by substance abuse and having to rely on a mechanical leg to replace the one that was taken from him in the plane crash. John clearly shoulders much blame for the death of his father in that crash, and watching him deal with carrying that emotional burden serves to endear him more to the audience as Whisnant’s reprehensible actions drag both men into a glaring media spotlight that is only desired by one of them.
The story is recounted to us through the usual documentary techniques – honest interviews, archival footage, heartfelt fly-on-the-wall moments, etc. – and naturally gets stranger as it goes on. Both Wood and Whisnant are honest about the kind of people they are, and Whisnant is by far the most personable of the duo thanks to his sense of humor and down home charm. He hasn’t squandered his potential the way Wood has, and in fact Shannon wants nothing more than to improve his station in life and fulfill the great amounts of promise with which he believes to have been gifted.
There are fleeting moments in Finders Keepers when Whisnant easily captures our sympathies even though he’s trying to achieve that end at the expense of the misery of a man he has never known personally but has secretly resented since his youth for the usual reasons the haves are despised by the have-nots. The showdown between John and Shannon in the televised courtroom of Judge Mathis is the perfect capper to an unorthodox battle of wits that also involves a side trip to The Jerry Springer Show, a visit to a forensic taxidermist, and the sadly inevitable revelation that Whisnant could run for President of the United States in 2016. One thing’s for sure: this is definitely Judge Greg Mathis’ finest hour.
Following the Mathis appearance, Finders Keepers spends another twenty minutes on an extended epilogue of sorts that shows us how the entire episode over Wood’s leg affected both him and Whisnant for better and for worse. Whether or not each man gets the ending they deserve depends on where the individual viewer’s allegiance resides. By turns tragic, funny, and face-palm worthy, Finders Keepers is one of the best documentaries of the year, and one that you might not soon forget.
Finders Keepers is currently playing in select theaters after spending most of the year on the international film festival circuit. If your closest arthouse cinema isn’t screening the film, you can also rent or buy it now on Amazon Instant Video.