In the stranger-than-fiction film Finders Keepers, two men spend years tangling bitterly over the unlikeliest of prizes: a mummified human foot, discovered politely hiding inside a run-of-the-mill BBQ meat smoker during a storage unit auction.
Crafting the weirdest documentary of the year, directors Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel chronicle the sensational tango of ego, entitlement, and obsession between Maiden, North Carolina, amputee John Wood and local huckster Shannon Whisnant, locked in a custody fight over one man’s gnarled, fleshy, discolored foot.
A gold mine for quirky, can’t-make-it-up comedy thanks to its two Southern fried subjects, Finders Keepers gets serious as it moves past exploiting its subjects to explore the legal and moral quarrel between them: Who is the rightful owner of a limb—the person it was attached to for over three decades, or the one who bought it fair and square?
No one disputes that the coveted appendage in question started life very much connected to its biological owner. Wood was in his thirties when he first lost his foot in a 2004 small-plane crash that claimed the life of his father, furniture executive Tom Wood. He wanted the remains preserved in tribute to his departed dad, but the hospital staff either could not or would not comply.
So Wood stashed it in a fast-food joint freezer before DIY basting it in embalming fluid himself. As one does.
But fate conspired to separate Wood and his foot. As Carberry and Tweel gradually reveal in extensive (and heartbreaking) interviews, Wood’s ensuing years were wracked with guilt over the accident, for which he blamed himself. Longtime struggles with drug and alcohol addiction mushroomed as he recuperated from his injuries, causing irreparable rifts in his relationships.
Eventually Wood lost his home and missed payments on a storage unit full of belongings that included a certain BBQ smoker in which he’d hidden, and forgotten, his leg. The contents were auctioned off, Storage Wars-style, to a small-time flea market entrepreneur named Shannon Whisnant. Then the real drama began.
Perhaps the limb—of the left variety, amputated just below the knee and preserved none-too professionally in a homemade concoction of chemicals—had been languishing alone in that smoker for years, just waiting for its close-up.
Once Whisnant discovered the leg and ruled out the possibility that it had been left behind by a limb-hacking serial killer, the crafty Whisnant—a goateed bargain basement PT Barnum and, unfortunately for him, natural villain—started charging three bucks a pop to local peekaboos. (Children were charged just one dollar.)
Dubbing himself “The Foot Man,” he called up local news crews to publicize his new attraction and sold merchandise bearing his “Foot Smoker BBQ” logo—which is around the time Wood came calling, wanting his missing limb back.
Their quarrel was hostile from the start, owing to the chip on working-class Whisnant’s shoulder for the son of a rich man he remembered envying as a kid. Even more fascinating is the suggestion that similar daddy issues drove both men to fight for ownership of the foot.
Finders Keepers doesn’t have to dig too deeply to piece together the total media circus that was the Wood-Whisnant conflict; highly publicized and sensationalized by local news, the bizarre saga went national, then international, as the pair’s legal beef continued to make weird-news tabloid fodder for years.
Both sides certainly saw their share of cringeworthy moments, enticed by fleeting brushes with celebrity and flattered by the attention of media outlets that smelled ratings blood in the water. In one revealing moment from the TV archives, Whisnant makes a pre-foot appearance on sleazemeister Jerry Springer’s show, visibly validated by the attention of an audience that’s clearly jeering him.
And after nobly fending off opportunities to partner with Whisnant and exploit his amputated limb for a cut of the profits, Wood, disappointingly, succumbs to the dark side and starts pimping out the foot for his own gain. Only several local news and talk shows later does he refocus himself on his original quest to preserve his foot for posterity, with the help of a wonderfully quirky forensic veterinarian who just happens to have a thing for skeletal embalming.
But while the documentary has its own exploitative tendencies—lingering on buffoonish turns of phrase out of the clueless and camera-hungry Whisnant’s mouth, capturing his public humiliation when his big shot at stardom goes south, and probing into the lingering emotional wounds that cleaved Wood and his estranged mother and siblings apart—it eventually offers both men their own respective redemption.
That is, after they take their beef to the highest authority in the land to decide the foot’s rightful owner once and for all—on reality television, by Judge Mathis. In their world, even the pursuit of justice is a shot at a few more seconds of fame.