Directed by: Bryan Carberry & J. Clay Tweel .
Featuring: Shannon Whisnant, John Wood.
It would be very easy to make fun of the two men at the heart of the new documentary Finders Keepers. Reality TV shows like Duck Dynasty or Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo essentially exist to mock the “rednecks” they document, and Jerry Springer has been doing to same thing for decades now. But fairly early on in Finders Keepers, you get the sense that this movie isn’t going to do that. For one thing, unlike those TV shows, the two men at the heart of the movie actually are part of a fascinating story – the kind that you could not make a feature film about, because no one would believe it. And then, gradually over the course of the movie the men, who do somewhat start out as caricatures, become something far more human. Finders Keepers is a very funny documentary – but it’s also a sad, and very human one as well.
The story begins with a plane crash – when the father of John Wood crashes his small plane, which leaves him dead – his son survives, but loses his leg below the knee. Unlike most people, he wants to keep his amputated limb – and is shocked to discover when they give it to him that it’s not just bones, but actually still has all the skin on it. To keep things brief, and less grisly, let’s just say he kind of dries out the leg to preserve it – he then places the leg in a BBQ smoker, and leaves it in a storage unit – which he doesn’t keep up on the rent for. If you’ve seen Storage Wars, you know what happens next – an auction. And this is when Shannon Whisnant acquires the smoker, and the leg inside. He does the right thing (at first anyway) and calls the police – who take the leg back. But once he knows the story of how the leg ended up there, he wants it back. He bought it after all, and Whisnant is the type of guy who is always on the lookout for a moneymaking scheme. And his plan is to turn the smoker and the leg into a tourist attraction. Wood just wants his leg back – and he gets it – but once the media get a hold of the story, it becomes something more than anyone could have anticipated.
Directed by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel with simplicity – they are basically in straight ahead point and shoot intercut with talking heads doc mode here – Finders Keepers becomes a surprisingly interesting movie throughout, touching on a lot of themes from celebrity culture to drug addiction and many other things in between. Carberry and Tweel show what the documentary could have been – with lots of news reports about the incident sprinkled through the film, which basically paint the entire thing as a freak show – as well as moments from the Judge Mathis episode that ultimately determined the ownership of the leg, and others shows where basically both parties are mocked.
The movie has some fun with the story – of course – but really does want to get to know the two guys at the center of it. The movie spends a long time on Wood’s drug addiction – he had been getting better before the plane crash, but that sent him on a downward spiral again – one that for a while looked like it was going to cost him what family he had remaining – his sister is very sympathetic to his struggles, his mother not so much. Although he comes from a rich family – he ends up living under a bridge. His story, at least, has some redemption.
Strangely, it is the story of Shannon Whisnant which seems to take sadder turns throughout the movie. He wants to be rich and famous – he wants to be on TV every day and make people laugh. The most painful sequence in the movie may just be when Shannon gets cast on a reality TV show, and slowly realizes how his “audience” sees him. At first it looks like it may break him – and then he adjusts. It’s a sad little moment.
Finders Keepers is the type of documentary that works only as it is – I cannot imagine a feature film version, as it all just be too weird, too strange, and it couldn’t possibly have the same impact. Others have compared the film to Errol Morris’ first masterpiece – Gates of Heaven (1978) about Pet Cemeteries, and it does kind of resemble that film (although it doesn’t come close to matching the strange power of that film – but few films do). What they both do is find the humanity underneath the surface of people that many would mock – and come up with a quietly touching documentary.