‘Finders Keepers’ Review: An Epic Battle Over an Amputated Leg
Here’s a fun game to play: See how long you can go randomly flipping channels through your cable package before you stumble across a reality television show dedicated to the outlandish exploits of rednecks. There’s Duck Dynasty on A&E, Redneck Island on CMT, Swamp People on History, and only about 100 other ones spread out across dozens of channels. The documentation (and exploitation) of Southern culture has become an entire cottage industry on cable TV, one that the book Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon by Anthony Harkins (as quoted in this BuzzFeed article) claims can be tied to an American urge that arises “during moments of economic tension ... mass media rednecks help the American middle class blow off some steam and feel a little more secure."
At first glance, the new documentary Finders Keepers looks like the latest piece of this “hicksploitation” trend. Its story would make fertile territory for a reality series — and in fact both of its main characters have already appeared on numerous TV shows, including Judge Mathis and World’s Dumbest Hillbillies. It’s a war over, of all things, a severed leg. One of the film’s protagonists, John Wood, lost it in a plane crash, but decided to keep the amputated remains as a perverse memento. The other star of Finders Keepers, Shannon A. Whisnant, discovered the leg inside a barbecue smoker he purchased at a storage unit auction. Wood had placed the smoker in the unit (with the foot in it, for reasons that cannot really be explained) but then failed to keep up with the payments. Whisnant was initially horrified by the unwanted limb, but when the story started garnering media attention — first locally in North Carolina, and then around the globe — he quickly changed his tune. He started calling himself “The Foot Man,” and selling barbecue-and-amputation-themed T-shirts. Despite Wood’s repeated requests, Whisnant refused to hand over the foot. (So to speak.)
It’s easy to see why Wood and Whisnant’s battle became a press sensation. Without question, their fight for custody of Wood’s leg is a genuine legal conundrum. (Whisnant bought the storage unit fair and square, but didn’t know he was buying the leg — and even if he had, it’s still a desiccated piece of someone else’s flesh.) And Wood and Whisnant are both terrific interview subjects, unflinchingly honest about their ambitions and insecurities, and casually hilarious in their observations about life and about the particulars of their unique situation.
Through Finders Keepers’ first act, directors Clay Tweel and Bryan Carberry focus mostly on those particulars, and on genuinely funny interviews with Wood, Whisnant, and their respective friends and loved ones. If that’s as far as it went, Finders Keepers would be an entertaining film, but really not much different than the glut of reality junk leeching off the charm of quirky Southerners. But then it does go farther — and deeper into both Wood and Whisnant’s lives. It reveals why Wood is so intent on keeping something so seemingly worthless as an amateurishly embalmed leg, and why Whisnant absolutely refuses to let it go.
In doing so, Tweel and Carberry turn these potential caricatures into poignant and relatable human characters, and the sort of goofy news item that we all share on Facebook without a second thought into a small-scale tragedy. Eventually, the filmmakers also start to examine Wood and Wisnant’s growing fame; there’s an extended excerpt from their appearance on Judge Mathis, and a sequence where Whisnant is cast in another reality series and then has to reckon with the realization that the show may have only hired him to use him as the butt of a dumb joke. In doing so, Finders Keepers makes some timely observations about our society’s dangerous hunger for celebrity — and about television programming that invites us to delight in the misfortunes of others. It’s precisely the sort of trenchant cultural analysis and nuanced characters that give good documentaries a leg up on reality television.