[This is a re-post of my review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Finders Keepers expands into theaters and VOD this weekend.]
Most people don’t want a severed leg, but they do want compassion. Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel’s Finders Keepers features a stranger-than-fiction plot, but the heart of the film is a highly relatable tale about the two oddball characters reaching for grand ambitions, minor victories, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The story has been a goldmine for local news and daytime TV, but Carberry and Tweel’s documentary goes beyond the bizarre headlines, and while the conflict is as entertaining as you’d expect, what sets Finders Keepers apart is how it’s about more than a strangle battle over a lost-and-found limb.
In Maiden, North Carolina in 2007, amputee John Wood stopped making payments on his storage locker. The storage facility then held an auction on the contents of that locker. The locker contained a smoker grill. Wheeler-dealer Shannon Whisnant purchased the smoker grill. Much to Shannon’s surprise—and surprising joy—the smoker grill contained John’s amputated leg. The reason why the leg ended up in the grill in the first place is only the beginning of this weird tale of why John decided to hold on to his leg and why Shannon wanted to keep it.
I would wager that most audience members would be somewhat confused as to why anyone would want to keep a severed limb, and to be sure, John and especially Shannon are slightly off-kilter characters. When we first meet them and their families, they seem like caricatures. They’re goofy bumpkins who have nothing better to do than fight over something kind of gross. But as the film unfolds, Carberry and Tweel peel back the layers to show that John and Shannon want the leg for reason beyond reclaiming a lost limb or trying to turn a profit, respectively.
The movie takes two different approaches to its lead figures. John is the more sympathetic of the two with a tragic story behind how he lost his leg, and how it caused him to head into a downwards spiral. Meanwhile, Shannon is the more comic personality with an attitude coming off as a mix of South Park‘s Eric Cartman and Eastbound and Down‘s Kenny Powers minus the hostility. He’s oddly charming, quotable, and quick-witted, although he really needs to learn the definition of the word “perspire.”
The initial conflict is a bit of a sneak attack as the movie wins us over with humor, but there’s so much bubbling beneath the surface, and it doesn’t feel overbearing because it’s not manufactured. The directors didn’t set up a massive wealth divide between John’s pampered childhood and Shannon’s poverty. They didn’t tell these men to go to court. These personalities were set, and while documentaries are still a matter of editing to create a narrative, John and Shannon were set on a collision course long before the filmmakers showed up. And even though Carberry and Tweel can be a bit heavy handed (there are more than a few shots of John looking off into the distance), they mostly know how to balance the emotion and humor.
Finders Keepers at first seems like it’s making fun of its subjects, because anyone who wants a severed a leg must be a loon. And yes, as John’s sister points out, there is a lot of “Fuckery and shenanigans” (a phrase I will try to employ on a regular basis in my life), but it leads to important discoveries. This is a story of healing and humbling. Sometimes, a lot of good can come from finding a mummified appendage in a grill.