Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel's US Documentary Competition entry “Finders Keepers” has one of the most salacious loglines of any film at Sundance this year.
“Recovering addict and amputee John Wood finds himself in a stranger-than-fiction battle to reclaim his mummified leg from Southern entrepreneur Shannon Whisnant, who found it in a grill he bought at an auction.”
It's a synopsis with a review blurb practically built in, because Sundance is often a haven for the quirky and absurd and, at least on the surface, “Finders Keepers” has the sort of plot that no screenwriter in his or her right mind would ever dream up.
And were “Finders Keepers” just the story of a couple of North Carolina bumpkins bickering over a mummified leg that one of them lost in a tragic plane accident and the other purchased in a storage locker auction, it would be fun and sensationalistic and probably ultimately condescending, but we wouldn't care about that because of the fun inherent in giggling at rednecks.
And “Finders Keepers” isn't that at all.
The reason why Carberry and Tweel's film works is practically the opposite of its stranger-than-fiction freak show trappings. Despite a very reasonable running time of under 90 minutes, “Finders Keepers” digs underneath its initial craziness and finds two very real, damaged humans at the center. “Finders Keepers” may, indeed, be stranger-than-fiction, but it's finally significantly less strange and far more relatable than you would initially guess or perhaps fear.
The reason “Finders Keepers” will probably be better than most of the narrative films at Sundance this year isn't that no screenwriter could ever make up a story this wacky, but that no screenwriter would be able to craft characters as layered as John Wood and Shannon Whisnant.
Don't get me wrong, there's a story here that would entertain the staff of “Hillbilly TMZ” for months. Battling drug and alcohol addiction, John Wood became homeless and could no longer pay for his storage locker. And wheeler-dealer Shannon Whisnant bought the grill, discovered the foot and somehow decided this was his ticket to fame and fortune, launching an absurdly wrong-headed series of Foot Man-related business ventures all built around another man's missing limb (a limb he didn't even have possession of). And the conflict between the two men led them from local media to Germany to a spot on “Judge Mathis.”
The two sides boil down like this:
“He is its birth owner, but I still fell like I own it,” Shannon says of the leg.
“It's just f***ery and shenanigans,” says John's sister in what surely should be the movie's tagline for all future posters.
Carberry and Tweel aren't opposed to having fun with the story. The partially animated chain of custody for Wood's leg is an almost mind-boggling comedy of errors involving a funeral home, a Hardees and preservations methods that range from morbidly hilarious to kinda disgusting.
And Whisnant is, in particular, a larger-than-life figure whose hubris seems to know no bounds. His fantasies of practically creating a theme park built around the limb and his media-driven quest to convince the public of his legal ownership will also probably produce laughter directed as much at the man himself as at the situation he thrust himself into.
But Carberry and Tweel know this is a character study about two men who, through the oddest of circumstances, became, as Wood puts it, the opposite of soul mates, saying that there's a “an inexplicable polarization” between them.
The directors never try to make you feel embarrassed at any mirth you find in the battle for the leg. John and Shannon's families and loved ones are plenty perplexed at the situation and its bizarre escalation. What they do, though, is use the humor to lure viewers into the deeper, murkier waters surrounding both men, crafting a meditation on both class and celebrity that goes well beyond the tawdry logline.
With both men, the key is understanding what the leg means to them.
For John Wood, it's a memory of the plane crash that killed his father. It's the wholeness he's never been able to find due to his personal demons, a literal wholeness and also a spiritual wholeness. Its absence is a reminder of the personal responsibility he takes for his father's death, but also of his estrangement from his withholding mother, an intriguing character in her own right, and a wedge between John and his other family members, who are haunted by the crash in their own way.
“It's a funny story, but it's borne of tragedy. That's the part where I am,” John's mother observes aptly.
John comes from a wealthy family, even if he squandered everything and even he can't, as part of his recovery, deny responsibility and blame for what has happened her.
Shannon Whisnant, in contrast, grew up in poverty and he made a vow to do whatever it took to find fame. He's a huckster and a salesman, an aspiring musician and a wannabe standup comedian. He's a man who has been taught by shows like “Jerry Springer” and the TV's often contemptuous fetishism of blue collar life that there's literally no such thing as bad exposure, that even notoriety is better than anonymity, a conviction that the events of “Finders Keepers” put to the test.
It's hard to be entirely objective in a film like this and most viewers will probably feel that Carberry and Tweel's sympathies lie with John Wood. If the choice is between siding with the guy who needs his leg as a memorial and the guy who wants to charge $3 for adults and $1 for children to see the leg, it'd be hard not lean more in one direction.
But Shannon may have the law on his side and the directors don't try to deny that. In fact, I'd say they give Whisnant's side of the story as much sympathy as one could possibly imagine. Shannon came from very little, saw a chance to get a leg up — Yes, I hate myself for doing that — on a man who came from a lot and then wonders why the world can't just do him that simple favor of making him famous. It's sad, but it mostly isn't made to be pathetic. Shannon is hardly the only American who feels this way.
I'm betting that after “Finders Keepers” premieres, there's going to be a rush of attention both for the doc, but also to turn this into a narrative feature at some point. For what it's worth, Richard Linklater directing Jeremy Renner as John Wood and Jack Black as Shannon Whisnant would spell Golden Globe nominations all around.
But before that happens, “Finders Keepers” will be able to use its salacious hook to lure viewers in for a documentary that is at once drolly macabre and welcomely humane.