FINDERS KEEPERS (2015)
Directors: Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel
MPAA Rating: (for language)
Running Time: 1:22
Release Date: 9/25/15 (limited); 8/2/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 1, 2015
If a person buys a mattress and there's a million dollars hidden away inside that mattress, the person who bought said mattress isn't going to give up the million dollars that easily to the mattress' original owner. That's the argument put forth by the plaintiff in one of those courtroom-based television shows. It's a solid argument. Even the TV judge agrees with that. Here's the thing, though: The value and usefulness of a million dollars is unquestionable. It's an entirely different matter when we consider the actual facts of the case presented in Finders Keepers: Replace the mattress with a smoker-style grill, and swap the million dollars with an amputated leg, which was temporarily stored in the freezer of a fast-food restaurant before being mummified by means of dousing it in embalming fluid and sun-drying it in a possum basket in a tree.
This actually happened. Yes, that means all of it—the details involving the mummification of the leg and the fact that two grown men went on TV to argue the merits of the worth of that leg, as well as which of them actually owned it according to the law. Did I mention that the man to whom the leg was originally attached picked up the leg at the fast-food joint, after the manager discovered it during the breakfast rush, by way of the drive-through window? Just in case this story already weren't ludicrous enough, that happened, too.
If there's one thing to take away from this film (besides the reminder that truth genuinely is often stranger than fiction), it's that directors Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel are quite adept at audience manipulation. That might sound like a bad thing, but it's a compliment.
As it's presented in the first act of the film, this story is riotously funny—a ridiculous battle of nitwits over something that, on the surface of the matter, isn't of value anymore to one man and, on and under and deep below the surface of the matter, could never have any value of any kind for the other man. That both men desperately want this seemingly useless thing—again, an amputated, mummified leg—is a sturdy foundation for an absurdist comedy, and Carberry and Tweel play it up as such to great effect.
The two men at the heart of his odd custody fight are John Wood, who was the original possessor of the leg, and Shannon Whisnant, who bought the grill at an auction at a storage warehouse in Maiden, North Carolina. When he had to move out of his home, Wood had placed the leg in the grill for safekeeping. He rented a storage unit, which his mother helped to pay for, and placed all of his belongings in it. After he failed to keep up with the rental fees, his possessions were put up for sale. Whisnant, a flea-market entrepreneur (i.e., a guy who buys random stuff on the cheap and then tries to sell it for a profit), bought the grill and, upon opening the lid at home, discovered the leg.
The local news media, of course, went head-over-heels over the silly story, broadcasting a confrontation between the two men in the parking lot of a dollar store before cutting back to the anchors, who can hardly suppress their giggles. The story eventually hit the national and international news, with Whisnant insulting Wood on the radio and Wood taking to an "edgy" local news show to announce that he had obtained the leg from the funeral parlor where the cops brought it.
Everything here leans toward the comic, with Whisnant, who becomes known as "the Foot Man" among the locals, as a self-promoting blowhard who has T-shirts printed and Wood as something of a dumbfounded foil to the media attention. A person will probably catch himself or herself picking a side between the two men, weighing their arguments, and wondering where the hell the leg is now. This is the first part of the directors' manipulation.
The second part—and this is how effective they are at it—takes us aback. It comes after a fade to and out of black, as we're now looking at the aged, weary face of Wood's mother. She says that, yes, this is all funny to an outsider, but for her, that leg is a reminder of tragedy.
In retrospect and even in the moment to a certain degree, it's patently obvious what Carberry and Tweel have done, but it doesn't matter. We're suddenly hearing the mother, Wood, and his sister relate the story of the fatal plane crash that resulted in the amputation of Wood's leg and death of his father. The two men had a difficult relationship, and the father's death left many things unresolved. Whisnant opens up about his own father and the harsh beatings he unleashed upon his son.
Both of these men are in pain. Both of them spent decades trying to please impossible-to-please fathers. Wood wants the leg to serve as a memorial to his old man. Whisnant thinks it's a ticket to fame, perhaps, as his mother and almost-out-of-patience wife think, as a way to make up for the attention his old man never showed him. Through it all, both men are dealing with addictions—Wood to drug and Whisnant for fame.
It's a neat trick that Carberry and Tweel have pulled off with Finders Keepers. They turn this odd story into something surprisingly touching about and compassionate toward these people. We almost feel guilty for laughing at the extended story of the leg's journey to mummification, the malapropistic way Whisnant informs us "what perspired," the title of "forensic veterinarian" for a key player late in the film, and a whole slew of other curiosities. "Almost" is the key word there.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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