A man buys the contents of a storage locker at an auction in Maiden, N.C., in 2007. Inside he finds a grill and inside the grill he finds a human leg. More a foot than a leg, really, severed below the knee joint and mummified. Then the guy who lost the leg turns up and wants it back, and things get really weird.
A foolproof subject for a documentary? Right away, problems arise. Should this story be filmed with scant editorial intervention, slowly revealing the absurdity and humanity, like Errol Morris’s “Gates of Heaven?” (1978)? Or should it simply make fun of its subjects, like “The Jerry Springer Show”?
Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel’s “Finders Keepers” tries a little of both. The film veers from farce to tragedy and relates a twisted variation on the American Dream.
Opening with “Habanera” from George Bizet’s “Carmen” on the soundtrack, it takes on the air of a live action Warner Bros. cartoon. John Wood, who looks like Jeremy Renner might after a life of failure, self-loathing, and drug abuse, reenacts walking to the storage room and opening it to find the grill. This is odd because he is not the one who found the leg, but the one who lost it. And wants it back.
The finder, Shannon “The Foot Man” Whisnant, a big-bellied, bearded man who would look at home in “Duck Dynasty,” has a high opinion of himself. (“I’m pretty smart. You probably figured that out by now.”) He wants to keep the leg because he sees it as the ticket to his life’s dream of being on TV. He’s already charging $3 to let people peek at it.
The local news has fun with the story, and when it escalates it is reported on the major networks. It seems Whisnant’s dream is coming true. Or are these media people just playing him for a fool?
They might be, but at this point Carberry and Tweel no longer are. They’ve seen beyond the stereotypes into their subjects’ humanity, however eccentric it may be. What starts out as a freak show ends up a poignant tale of tragedy, redemption, and the boon of taxidermy.