What would compel a person to keep a severed leg, let alone lead two people to fight over said leg? That is the question at the heart of the strange but true story detailed in Finders Keepers. As the documentary shows, the story has already provided plenty of fodder for both local news programs and daytime TV over what one person refers to as “fuckery and shenanigans,” but Finders Keepers finds its way behind the (admittedly entertaining) sensationalism and into something far more compelling.
In 2007, amputee John Wood stopped making payments on a storage locker he rented in Maiden, North Carolina. The contents of the locker were then sold at auction. Among the items in the locker was a smoker grill. Shannon Whisnant, who made his living off of flipping purchases from these sorts of auctions, bought the grill. When he opened it, he was surprised by the discovery of John’s amputated leg. This discovery is just the beginning of a lengthy battle between Wood and Whisnant over ownership of the leg.
To someone just hearing about this story in passing, it might seem like a joke. Finders Keepers plays into that as it opens. Wood and (especially) Whisnant are what some (including me) would refer to as “characters.” Their personalities are large, and especially when viewed alongside their respective families, they come across more as caricatures than actual people. It doesn’t help, of course, that they’re fighting over something that’s, well, odd. But the film begins to look at both Wood and Whisnant, revealing understandable reasons they both want this leg.
Whether it’s from the edit the filmmakers took while approaching the material, or the actual personalities of the two, Wood and Whisnant are given distinctive treatments by the filmmakers. Wood is the more sympathetic of the two, and not just because he lost the leg to begin with. There’s a tragic story surrounding the loss of his leg, and losing it was part of a dramatic downward spiral for the man. Whisnant, on the other hand, is essentially South Park‘s Cartman personified. He’s a blustery salesman with ambitions that exceed whatever talent he may have.
Part of what makes Finders Keepers so interesting, though, is that the film lulls the audience in with humor before digging into weightier material, and it does so without seeming fabricated. That’s because the filmmakers couldn’t possibly have any control over a number of aspects of the story, such as the class divide from childhood that placed Wood in prosperity and Whisnant in poverty. The times where the two interact, leading up to a court case aired on Judge Mathis, existed before this documentary was even made. There is, as documentaries tend to create, a narrative that’s the result of editing, but so much of the story is rooted in real conflict. The filmmakers here, thankfully, balance the heavier material with humor, making the whole story work more effectively.
Finders Keepers is a surprisingly effective documentary, one that plays with audience expectations to take a crazy story about a mummified leg and turn it into something that speaks to the human experience. It’s a treat for audiences, and entertaining to boot.