Finders Keepers is a documentary that falls under the stranger than fiction category. The story of two men fighting a custody battle over a mummified human leg sounds like a farce with characters that could call Jed Clampett or Andy Taylor neighbor had their shows existed in today’s TV land.
The setup makes you shake your head in disbelief. Why would two men be at odds over a leg? But the comic value for such circumstances casts a wider net as directors Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel gradually show us how this one leg leads to fame, redemption and ridicule.
We see John Wood walking purposeful but with a noticeable hitch in his step. He is heading towards a storage unit located in the small town of Maiden, North Carolina. Unit 48 at this storage lot once held numerous household items (like bedroom and living room furniture sets) but Wood’s substance abuse issues led to an inability to afford the monthly $42 rental storage fee.
A year prior to falling victim to drugs, Wood’s left leg was firmly attached. Then tragedy strikes as a small engine plane crash takes the limb and his father’s life. Wood wanted to keep the leg’s skeletal remains but the mortuary left the skin and muscle intact, so his solution was some do-it-yourself mummification with embalming fluid and letting it sun-bake in a tree for months.
The leg would eventually find its way into an old barbecue smoker, later housed in the storage unit where it was purchased at auction in 2007 by Shannon Whisnant. After the initial shock of discovering the mummified remains and phoning 9-1-1, a light bulb clicked on.
Long-tongued on matters related to big ideas and wanting to be famous, Whisnant turned the leg into a Maiden tourist attraction. Only three bucks to see the BBQ foot. He revels in his newfound fame – which includes a line of T-shirts, television and radio appearances, and even a personal vanity license plate that reads “FTSMOKER” – seeing the discovered limb as his destiny with becoming famous, a dream Whisnant has had since the age of five.
A media storm forms over Maiden when their stories go public. The news couldn’t get enough of “The Foot Man” (Whisnant) and Wood’s emergence as the rightful owner. Whisnant feels the leg is his fair and square. He bought the smoker. Found the limb. Finders keepers.
The custody battle over the foot gets national and international attention from outlets like Good Morning America and CNN. But as the feud unfolds and we get to learn more about both men, outside elements reveal themselves to muddle preconceived notions pertaining to the family dynamic and the fascination with wanting to be famous.
A more sensible person upon discovering a leg in a smoker would throw it out, not keep it. Then again, the average person probably would not have a severed limb as a keepsake reminder of his deceased father. Whisnant’s insinuation that John Wood was a spoiled brat because he grew up with Go-Karts and all the cool toys hints that he’s been jealous for decades for all the good fortune that has gone Wood’s way. That good fortune is torn asunder with the plane crash and Wood’s Oxycontin addiction. His remaining family grows distant, especially the relationship with his mother.
The rightful owner of a foot may be the top subject of Finders Keepers, but the mummified appendage baits us into a film that’s more about human psychology and why some men do the things they do. Strange as it may be.
Director: Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel
Starring: John Wood and Shannon Whisnant
Running Time: 82 minutes
Rating: R (for language)