Overview: Finders Keepers takes a closer look at the bizarre story of John Wood and Shannon Whisnant, two men from small-town North Carolina who engage in a custody battle over an amputated leg. The Orchard; 2015; Rated R; 83 minutes.
A Comic Tragedy: It’s hard to believe, but the legal battle over the leg might be the dullest thing about Finders Keepers. It’s what the leg stands for to these men that’s really fascinating. “It’s a funny story, but it’s borne of tragedy,” Wood’s mother says early on in the film, and as the story progresses, the tragedy of it all begins to far outweigh the comedy. But that’s okay. In fact, it’s better than okay. This bold decision by documentarians Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel to embrace the sadness, rather than try to joke their way around it, is exactly what makes Finders Keepers the amazing film that it is. There’s tragedy in both men’s stories. For Wood, the original owner of the leg, it begins with struggles with addiction, continues with the loss of his beloved father in the same plane crash that took his leg, and reaches a height with a newfound addiction to the painkillers he took while dealing with his injury. Wood’s addictions ruined his relationship with his family and made life nearly unbearable. Wood admits that for a while, the custody battle over his leg was the only thing that made his life worth living. For Whisnant, who bought the leg, the struggles are more internal. He plans to use the leg to achieve desperate long-held dreams of fame and fortune that haven’t yet been reached. His dreams tear him emotionally away from his wife, and the pursuit of fame means so much to Whisnant that he nearly cries when talking about it.
Complexity of Character: Finders Keepers works as well as it does because it refuses to let Wood and Whisnant fall into stereotypes. At first glance, Wood is the clear hero. With a kind smile, a good-natured, likeable aura, and a natural sense of humor, it’s easy to root for Wood. When he talks about his addictions and mistakes in the past, he doesn’t make excuses. He is honest and sometimes brutal in how he talks about his past self. He often seems capable of stepping back and looking at how absurd the entire situation is. Whisnant says things like, “It’s a win-win-win. If you’re just winning, or win-winning, that’s just winning or win-winning, but when you’re win-win-winning, you’re win-win-winning.” Yes, he really said that. Whisnant is larger-than-life, frustrating at times, and seemingly quite selfish. But even at the height of his antics, he’s sympathetic, and Carberry and Tweel do an amazing job of tapping into why Whisnant is the way he is.
Overall: Finders Keepers reminds us of something that is all too easy to forget: There is so much more to people that meets the eye. Who knows what stories we might be missing out on by assuming that things are as simple as they seem? Thankfully, Finders Keepers didn’t make this mistake, and boy, did it dig up some amazing stories. With a premise even the best screenwriter would have trouble imagining and profoundly complex characters, Finders Keepers is a heartfelt documentary that finds the humanity behind its tabloid headline.