Documentaries can be of many kinds, but most fall into two categories: there's the socially conscious, let's-move-the-audience-to-make-a-difference documentary, and there's the hey-this-thing-is-interesting-lets-film-it documentary. I tend to find the latter much more interesting, but primarily when it aims not to make fun or show a one-sided view of the subject matter. Errol Morris is perhaps the truest example of this, as his early films try to capture a place and a group of people without passing judgment on them. Finders Keepers, the new film by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Teel, finds itself firmly in the vein of something like Vernon, Florida, and while it's not quite as groundbreaking, it's fascinating and damn entertaining.
Finders Keepers dives headlong into the uber-publicized story of the battle between John Wood and Shannon Whisnant. The subject of their ever escalating feud is the catalyzing event: in short, Shannon bought a grill out of an auctioned storage unit and found inside an embalmed human leg. The leg belonged to John, who had lost it in an airplane crash that had claimed the life of his father. The film begins by investigating just how this bizarre series of events came to be, but soon finds there is much more to the story on both sides, citing family history as the root of most of these two men's strange problems.
Just off the top, the initial story is utterly absorbing. It's a situation that seems to defy explanation, but gradually becomes (sort of) understandable as we find out the context. The fight between the men, who both claim ownership of the leg, is a narrative that begs to be told as the story graduates from local news to a German talk show, finally coming to a head on (of all places) Judge Mathis, where the legal stickiness of the situation is surprisingly real. John and Shannon, along with their families, are totally fascinating subjects, and both make characters that couldn't have been written better if they were in some backwoods fiction.
What makes Finders Keepers particularly interesting and not just a wacky news story is how deep the story goes from there. Although there are plenty of laughs about the oddness of it all–and the film is genuinely hilarious at many points–the movie makes a point to respect both these men despite how easy it would be to poke fun. Rather than leave it at "How can southerner's be so dumb?" they look backwards, opting to answer the much better question, "What would cause someone to keep their own amputated leg, or fight to keep someone else's?"
From there, we learn of John's drug addiction that followed the horrific crash that claimed his leg and his father, how it tore his family apart, and how the embalmed leg seemed like the last vestige of a better time in his life. We also learn of Shannon's deep rooted need for attention, and how his family life growing up led to a furious need to do anything to be the man on TV that can make anyone laugh. It's shockingly heartfelt, and before long the feud doesn't seem nearly as silly. Probably the film's greatest asset is the way it approaches it's main subjects; unlike King of Kong (of which Teel was a producer) which clearly has a protagonist and antagonist, the line is much more blurred here.
That said, the film does suffer a bit for it's directors' relative lack of experience in some areas. While the overall narrative is crafted quite well, the editing within is often amateurish, using random shots that look sort of poignant to cover up a lack of relevant footage. It feels a little haphazard at times, but one constant is the overuse of music as a crutch. Rather than an overarching score that highlights moments in specific ways, each segment of the film has a musical theme, and the theme is essentially set to loop for that 15-20 minutes. Granted, these may be nitpicks, but they definitely distract from the otherwise excellent narrative.
It's a bit meta that this is a documentary following two men whose most shameful moments involve what they would do to be on camera, but the kind of attention it pays them is rich with the honor and tragedy found in the everyday. Finders Keepers will make you double over laughing at Shannon's explanation of a "win-win-win" situation or John's retelling of the coroner skiddishly dropping off his amputated appendage in a garbage bag, but will then force you to ask yourself: haven't I done something just as strange that made perfect sense in the moment?
Finders Keepers premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival and has since run a successful festival tour across the U.S. Today it opens in limited theaters.