FINDERS KEEPERS, documentary, rated R, Center for Contemporary Arts,
The premise of Finders Keepers sounds tailor-made for reality television. In 2007, Shannon Whisnant bought the contents of a storage unit in North Carolina. Inside a smoker grill he found a human leg that he subsequently decided people would pay money to see, like a museum exhibition. Some years prior to finding the leg, Whisnant had appeared on The Jerry
Springer Show, where he got into de rigueur shouting matches with audience members. Years later, riding the fame that came with being the guy who found the leg, he participated in a reality show about storage-unit auctions. Like all great celebrities of the reality TV genre, he’s a trainwreck, huffing and puffing his way though endless cigarettes and telling the camera how smart he is even as he consistently says “perspire” when he means “transpire.” So it would have been easy to spin this story as the hilarious shenanigans of so-called white trash, but instead directors Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel explore the complex psychology of the leg’s owner, John Wood, and his family, as well as Whisnant’s quest to be a household name.
Whisnant grew up poor, beaten by his father, and listening to comedy records for companionship, while Wood was wealthy and berated by his own father, pushed to be a daredevil. Wood lost his leg in 2005 when the plane he was co-piloting crashed. His father, the pilot, died. Wood, already an alcoholic and crack addict, received a prescription for the painkiller OxyContin, which he took while drinking and blaming himself for the crash. He decided to preserve his leg as a memorial to his father, but things didn’t work out the way he planned, and eventually the contents of the storage unit containing his leg went to auction. Though Whisnant initially called police to come collect the body part, he soon decided it was his property as well as his ticket to fame and fortune.
In the documentary, Whisnant drags Wood through morning news shows and a trip to a reality court television show. Wood’s relatives watch him give interviews while he’s coked to the gills, and the family are forced to relive the trauma of the plane crash over and over again. Wood’s and Whisnant’s families reveal themselves as insightful, caring people who just wish the leg drama would end. Wood’s mother, sister, and niece, who each have a radically different relationship with Wood, are especially compelling and ultimately the most heart-breaking people onscreen. Some may find Wood’s eventual redemption to be the kind of schmaltz typically found on shows like Intervention, but the filmmakers seem acutely aware of imitating the dramatic arc of such a show, just as they want to make you aware that Wood is a real person — not a reality show invention — who really lost his leg, twice, and lived to tell the tale.
A leg up: Shannon Whisnant