Film Review – Finders Keepers
Who would have thought the story of two men fighting over ownership of an amputated leg found in a smoker grill in North Carolina would attain a near-Steinbeck level of self-destruction and resurrection? At first glance, Finders Keepers is a parody of two hicks from the South kicking up dust over a novelty shock-piece, one with the panache of a carnival barker, the other with the drama of a soap opera star. Look closer. It’s about a crutch that a person can use to justify a behavior cycled over and over, whipping friends and family into the centrifuge of celebrity, delusion, and self-pity, and effectively driving them away.
John Wood failed to pay rent on a storage unit containing everything he owned, and after a few months his possessions were auctioned off. One item was a grill bought by Shannon Whisnant, a man with a passion for rummage sales, swap meets, and a good deal. Whisnant got it home before he opened it, only to find a human foot (and part of a leg up to the knee) stored inside. It had been rudimentarily preserved and sun-dried, and in his shock and disgust Whisnant reported it to the police who took it to a local funeral home. At that time, Wood was in South Carolina, having been evicted from his house, spurned by family, and in the throes of alcohol and drug addiction. By the time he came back to retrieve his belongings, Whisnant was already sniffing out the opportunities of his unusual discovery.
When a used item is purchased such as a piece of furniture or a car and something from the original owner is found inside, you would expect any legal tussle over the contents to intensify over the projected value (i.e. jewelry or antiques). The fact that a human limb caused all this hoopla and earned radio and television involvement by Howard Stern, CNN, and Good Morning America is a testament to our society’s premium on anything sensational, gaudy, and freakish. Whisnant put up signs advertising folks could come see the smoker: $1 for kids, $3 for adults. No mention is made of how much money was earned, but evidently it wasn’t enough to satisfy Whisnant because he expanded his reach and salesmanship by using the media.
John Wood just wants the foot back, though he wasn’t sure just what to do with it. When one is in a depression, painful things are shut away, even in close proximity, in a losing game of trying to forget without first forgiving either others or oneself. Instead of dealing with the circumstances and emotions surrounding the foot, it was stashed away and closed up in a storage unit while the owner moved away to wrap himself in the stupor of addiction. Wood lost the limb in a plane crash that killed his father, who was the pilot that day. Interviews with his sister, Marian, and brother-in-law, Tom, reveal a son who was given every material possession by his parents, but who maintained a constant need to live up to and please his father and whose relationship with his mother escalated from nurturing to enabling to the point where she had to cast him out. To John, the foot was an emblem of his father (also named Tom) and of the son’s inadequacy and failure. He became fixated on fashioning it as a memorial to his dad, but his addictions crippled any goal or major task he had to come to fruition, thus continuing the cycle of guilt, depression, and more substance abuse.
The lure of recognition and fame attracted Shannon Whisnant, who quickly displayed the focus on self and delusional sense of reality that grease the wheels of addiction. Directors Clay Tweel and Bryan Carberry intersperse their interviews of the men and their families with footage of radio DJs referring to Whisnant as “PT Barnum” and human-interest pieces on local and national news calling him the “Foot Finder” as they giddily recounted the bizarre story. The media latched onto Whisnant’s “f—kery and shenanigans,” as one relative called it, as they would a train wreck, involving themselves as long as things stayed hot, and Whisnant was determined to keep things hot as long as possible, regardless of how ridiculous he looked or the effect of the notoriety on his wife and family. The foot becomes as lucrative to Shannon’s identity as it was destructive to John’s, to the point where neither man can exist without it.
“It’s not how much you want to do, it’s how much you can do.” Wood was speaking of his abuse of alcohol and Oxycontin, first prescribed after the accident, and his ensuing addictions to cocaine and crack. It is the theme of this story as well, for who can find closure when closure isn’t sought? Fame doesn’t seek closure – ever – but its death comes from boredom and inactivity, which is why fame-seekers rarely stop. In the end, both families are wary of what’s to come for each man, though one is more positive than the other. “What happened to reality?” Whisnant barks after a bumbled television appearance, “This is supposed to be a reality show!”