Somewhere at the intersection of reality TV and a Coen Brothers picture lies Finders Keepers — as peculiar and entertaining a story as you’re likely to find. You know the old Groucho Marx gag where he sells a hapless ship’s steward an insurance policy, claiming, “If you lose a leg, we help you look for it”? Well, John Wood — who is at the center of this eccentric documentary — could have used such a policy. Wood is a man who indeed did lose a leg (or a foot and part of his leg). The remarkable thing — actually, the first of many remarkable things — is that he managed to lose it more than once. I shall explain.
Born into an upscale family in Maiden, N.C., Wood lost his leg in 2004 in the small plane crash that also killed his father. For reasons not entirely clear, Wood decided he wanted to keep the amputated appendage. Expecting (goodness knows why) to be presented with the skeletal remains, Wood is horrified to find he’s been given the whole leg. Since storing it is awkward in his small refrigerator, Wood does what any clear-thinking person would — he gets an acquaintance to put it on ice at the local Hardee’s, a solution that lasts only briefly (imagine that). Various attempts at preserving the leg result in the sort-of-embalmed, sort-of-mummified extremity being stored in Wood’s meat smoker. It might have remained there if Wood’s various addiction problems hadn’t ended up with him losing his house and then losing the storage locker where his worldly goods (and the odd body part) were stored, whereupon its contents were auctioned off.
Enter self-proclaimed (and very small time) wheeler-dealer Shannon Whisnant (identified in the film as an entrepreneur). He buys the smoker, discovers the detached limb and, being a canny businessman, decides he’s struck oil — sort of. No longer in possession of the errant foot — the sheriff’s department placed it in a funeral home — he opts to charge admission for people to see the smoker, setting himself up as “The Foot Man.” Soon realizing that he needs the actual body part to really make this enterprise go, he tries to reclaim his property (he has the receipt). So begins (in a Dollar General parking lot) the strange battle for possession of this frankly grisly artifact — a not-quite-epic struggle between a would-be P.T. Barnum and a singularly bewildered (and bewildering) man who somehow sees the body part as the centerpiece for a memorial to his father.
Now, it may seem that I’ve just told you the whole story, but I haven’t by any means. What follows is so deeply strange that the most rational thing in it is an appearance on Judge Mathis. But the truth is that Finders Keepers transcends its admittedly entertaining tabloid tackiness to become something more. What starts as a weird comedy, involving characters you’ve seen — but perhaps not known — all your life (if you’ve spent that life anywhere near the rural South), becomes something tragic and unexpectedly moving. It also hints at redemption and touches on the not-so-subtle class distinctions that still exist today — however much we might like to believe otherwise. Come for the freakish story; stay for its surprising humanity.
Though Finders Keepers opens Friday for regular showings, there is a special screening Thursday, Oct. 8, at 7 p.m. at the Fine Arts Theatre with special guest John Wood (the fellow whose foot was in contention) and producer Tim Grant. (No word on whether the foot will be in attendance.) Tickets for this event only are $12. Rated R for language.
Playing at the Fine Arts Theatre.