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Maiden, North Carolina, 2007. Self-proclaimed “entrepreneur” Shannon Whisnant goes to a storage locker auction, looking to flip discarded trinkets at a profit. He buys an old metal smoker, loads it up, and takes it home. Upon further inspection, not only did Shannon buy a smoker, but he also bought a severed human foot, one mummified and preserved. It belonged to John Wood, a South Carolina man who lost that foot in 2004 in a plane accident that also killed his father. In the foot, Shannon saw an even more lucrative business opportunity, charging admission for curious locals to come see the grill that had a foot in it. He didn’t have it, though; a shocked police officer took it to a local funeral home, bereft of any better ideas for what to do. What ensued was a years-long legal and moral battle over possession rights of the foot and one of the strangest true stories you’ll ever hear.
Finders Keepers chronicles this tale, and in it, directors Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel have stumbled onto a goldmine. It’s an uproariously funny, heartwrenching, surreal, and insightful documentary about a pair of down-on-their-luck guys turning a bizarre situation into an opportunity to kick-start the rest of their lives. This is the rare, wonderful kind of doc that can have you belly laughing at one moment and tearing up just seconds later. It’s an incredible work of “stranger than fiction” observation, one that benefits colossally from its participants’ remarkable candor in admitting their own faults even as they’re quick to point out those in the other players involved.
For his part, John is a nice guy trying to keep his life together. After the crash, due to a combination of his injuries and his lingering guilt over his having been the copilot on the day of his father’s death, John took to hard drugs, abusing anything he could get his hands on, all while battling Shannon for possession of his own foot, a totem that keeps him tethered to memories of a life that he’d largely tossed away. (He was in the military, and lauded with honors, but was eventually discharged for substance abuse.) John’s a charismatic guide to the film’s strange world, a charmer with a missing front tooth who refers to Shannon as his Antichrist and readily admits that he’s too broken a man to move on without bringing some sort of satisfying resolution to the case of the disputed foot.
Shannon, by contrast, is a salt-of-the-earth type whose jovial demeanor belies his desperate need to be noticed, acknowledged, and admired. He’s a huckster through and through, whose ultimate dreams are to be famous and to make other people laugh. Where John grew up in privilege, Shannon grew up and still lives on a ramshackle farm. As Shannon puts it, anybody who was anybody had a childhood birthday party at the Wood house, so “I guess I’m a nobody.” When he found the foot, and local news coverage gave way to national and eventually international interest in the strange situation, Shannon saw his ticket to the big time at long last. Despite the insistences of his wife, who can see exactly where this will all end, Shannon pushes forward on the road to celebrity.
Finders Keepers follows the case through its many odd progressions, from a showdown outside a Dollar General to Shannon’s appearance on a D-list reality show to their appearance on an episode of Judge Mathis, all while chronicling the weird, tragic lives of its two protagonists. While John struggles with sobriety and his fractured family relationships, such as the one with his embittered mother who keeps her husband’s ashes in a cardboard box in her house for her own deep-seated reasons, Shannon gets just enough of a taste of validation that it becomes its own kind of addiction. When he shows up on Jerry Springer as a rube there to be heckled, the film finds true pathos in how much pleasure Shannon takes in it all. Neither of them are bad guys, per se. They’ve made their mistakes, and they’re both capable of hurting the people they love, but they’re both idealists chasing the unattainable.
In this, Finders Keepers joins the ranks of documentaries like The King of Kong in its firm unwillingness to gawk at what even those onscreen refer to as a freakshow. (That’s probably not an accident, given that Kong director Seth Gordon is one of this film’s executive producers.) It’s a remarkably empathetic movie and a sly commentary on class warfare as seen through the legal battle for a mummified foot. Finders Keepers might be based on an odd tale, but its larger themes of redemption, forgiveness, and the pitfalls of obsession are as universal as they come. And in Wood and Whisnant, the film gives two guys who’ve endured too much in life their day.
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