The first feature length collaboration between Bryan Carberry and third-time director J. Clay Tweel, Finders Keepers drops us right in the middle of a tale that is truly – to use a tired cliche that the film thankfully never name-checks with a knowing eye-wink – stranger than fiction. Focusing on a legal battle over the ownership of a man’s severed foot, the film opened to raves at SXSW, and hits Australian shores with its reputation proceeding it. While the tale is surely humorous, and there’s a nice flow to the pacing of its presentation here, Carberry and Tweel cannot go without criticism for the film’s inherent classism and exploitation of those lacking a strong formal education as Finders Keepers barely overcomes these hurdles it sets up for itself by the conclusion of its (admittedly, quite intriguing) tale.
In 2o07 Shannon Whisnant found a severed foot in a grill that he purchased in a storage locker auction. The foot turned out to belong to John Wood, a local man with a famous job-creating family who lost it in a tragic plane accident that took the life of his father. Wood wishes to reclaim ownership of the foot but Whisnaut won’t have a bar of it, seeking to claim ‘finders keepers’ over the body part in court. From here, the story spirals out of control, and as it is picked up by domestic and international media it becomes apparent that neither man is fully equipped to deal with the new-found attention, whether due to Whisnaut’s low education level, or Wood’s debilitating drug addiction. It is here that the problem afflicting Carberry and Tweel’s documentary first presents itself – rather than calling out the media for targeting the two men based on their social class, the documentary (for the most part) actively contributes to their stigmatization, playing Whisnaut’s clear lack of education up for laughs, and extracting humor from Tweel’s crack addiction. While both matters are important to constructing a fully rounded portrait of both men and the ensuing events, such action does not need to be undertaken in such a way that it vilifies Whisnaut and Wood.
Thankfully, by giving Whisnaut a bit of free reign over his characterization, the inherent tragedy of his story break through from the film’s questionable and somewhat problematic presentation. Whisnaut is a man who just wants recognition from broader society – he could be pigeon-holed as fame obsessed, but his desire has far more interesting roots. He is a man who, due to social, political, and economic factors outside of his control, lacks any tangible power or sway – he is a hidden casualty of the American Dream, a man who just wants his life to mean something. Wood’s severed foot provides the opportunity for his moment in the spotlight and he (unthinkingly) grasps it. It’s definitely a strange thought to think that Whisnaut may come across as the hero in this story, seeing as he is claiming ownership over something that clearly doesn’t belong to him, but his tale of perceived social exclusion and insignificance – especially as he faces off against someone as wealthy and privileged as Wood – says more significant things about the marginalized sections of America than this documentary alone could ever hope to achieve.
This, and Finders Keepers interesting premise, manage to elevate the film above the ignorant finger-pointing and name-calling Carberry and Tweel center the film’s humor around, barely managing to push the film beyond its problematic roots. To give credit where credit is due, Carberry and Tweel never feel cognisant of their attempts to weave a ‘crackhead vs. hillbilly’ narrative, and Whisnaut and Wood did not do themselves many favors as this story was unraveling; in archival footage the duo argued in parking lots, Whisnaut intentionally played a caricature of himself as he sold himself to the media in the pursuit of a quick buck, and as Wood spiraled further and further into a downward spiral of drug addiction – suffering from the withdrawal of his carefree, privileged lifestyle – he made himself prone to increasing public outbursts of insanity. It would be unfair to suggest that the directing duo didn’t cinematically replicate the majority of these moments without a sense of empathy; what would have been nice, however, is if Carberry and Tweel didn’t attempt to have it both ways as they manage to vilify both of these men for their quirks, while being empathetic for their personal struggles. The end result feels sloppy, occasionally even cheap and exploitative, with the final product elevated only by its brisk run time and the quirkiness of the tale.
As such, Finders Keepers does not feel like the documentary that its over-hyped reception has made it out to be.1 Carberry and Tweel have made a passable documentary overall, a film that is formally proficient (although nothing particularly special), that does well with the limited tools such a brief story and minor blip of an event provides, but majorly problematizes its content in the way that it is conveyed. While I would be fascinated to see what comes of Whisnaut in the future, and how his tale progresses, I’m not sure I’ll be rushing out to see another project from the duo behind the venture.