For a documentary to be truly great, it has to have humanity, and despite a subject matter surrounded by greed and the complete incredulity of all those involved, Finders Keepers has mountains of heart. Co-directors Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel manage to do the impossible with their film and with their directorial style by transforming a daytime television story into an utterly captivating 82 minutes while invoking the likes of Errol Morris and the Maysles brothers. Whether by luck or by skill (the seemingly effortless camera and editing work make any concrete decision futile) Carberry and Tweel dig far beneath the surface of the story to uncover an enrapturing sense of emotion behind every bizarre choice and larger-than-life character. Plunging into the depths of love, loss, addiction, family and life aspirations, Finders Keepers is far more than the story of a smoked left foot.
After a fatal plane crash took his father and his left leg, John Wood was determined to make the best of a bad situation. Claiming that he intended on making the “skeletal remains” of the amputated leg into a memorial for his father, surgeons and a mortician approved the strange request. A mix of oxycontin and booze led to a series of events wherein the leg was “mummified” and locked inside a storage unit. Falling prey to his addictions, Mr. Wood lost the unit (in a Storage Wars-type auction) to an enterprising local salesman, Shannon Whisnant. Finding the fame (that supposedly comes with finding a human foot in a BBQ smoker) too appealing to let slip through his fingers, Whisnant began a truly outlandish and internationally-covered battle to win possession of the leg.
Refusing to take the story at face value (including any of the inflated media opinion), Carberry and Tweel start from the ground up in reconstructing both the life circumstances of the inexorably connected men and the events that apparently must take place in order to lose a left foot. Extensive backgrounds on Wood and Whisnant are given first hand treatment, and instead of gawking at the quarreling good ‘ol boys, the directors strive to discover what made them into the people at the center of this strange controversy. Never belittling any of the choices made or mocking the (at times) poor grammar, Carberry and Tweel always start with the assumption that they are not different or extraordinary. This coercive empathy bleeds onto the film and can be palpably felt. Knowing that a radical shift is taking place — from a standpoint of disbelief to one of understanding — the audience is compelled to identify with these men and see (at least a little) of themselves reflected onto the screen.
Not content with simply presenting the narrative fact by fact, Finders Keepers delights in exposing familial disclosures and in exploring the many pathways of thought it stumbles upon. The directors remain open to the analysis and improvement of their original story, leading them (and by extension, us) to some unbelievably profound conclusions. Commenting on everything from our modern, fame-obsessed culture to preconceptions of addiction, Finders Keepers floods past the story of John Wood’s lost leg, becoming far more revelatory and pertinent than anything covered in news reports. Touching moments of unyielding love and unfathomable pain permeate the documentary — cutting through the “fuckery and shenanigans” (a quote from John’s sister Marian Lytle) to become the piercing heart of the film.
In what is perhaps the best documentary of the year, directors Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel peel back the layers of their ridiculous subject to deliver a thought provoking and strikingly human feature. Finders Keepers is wonderfully and decidedly neutral in its approach, and so being, it offers the audience a chance to live — even for just a moment — as any of its many unusual characters uncover the beauty and tragedy behind what it means to be human.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.