The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Finders Keepers’ looks at the legal dispute over a severed leg

The documentary “Finders Keepers” tells the story of the battle over John Wood’s leg. (Long, and surprisingly thoughtful, story.) (The Orchard)

File this one under “What the huh?”

The documentary "Finders Keepers" is a thorough, frequently hilarious and ultimately touching investigation of a legal dispute between two North Carolina men, each of whom lays claim to a severed human leg. The first man, John Wood, is the original possessor of said foot — meaning that it was once attached to the end of his leg, until doctors amputated it after he was injured in the 2004 airplane crash that killed his father. For reasons that will mystify many, Wood took custody of the surgical remains, and after mummifying it, stored the foot inside an unused smoker grill that he placed in a storage locker after he was evicted from his home.

Wood, who has struggled with drug addiction, alcoholism and homelessness, is the film’s heart. His journey to overcome the setbacks of a hard-knock life — he claims to also have been shot, electrocuted and run over at various times — is the true subject of “Finders Keepers.” But there is another protagonist here.

Junk dealer Shannon Whisnant, is the, er, lucky guy who found Wood’s appendage, in 2007, rolled up in a length of window screen like a taquito, after winning the contents of Wood’s storage locker at auction when Wood fell into arrears on his rental payments.

Now hold on, you’re saying. Back up a second. We have a few questions.

Fear not. They all will be answered, along with some you haven't even considered. The documentary by Brian Carberry and J. Clay Tweel leaves no stone unturned, thanks largely to Wood and Whisnant, who are only too happy to revisit the details of the bizarre and twisting saga, which involves small claims court, the television shows "Judge Mathis" and "Dukes of Haggle" and Whisnant's ongoing attempt to monetize his reputation as the "Foot Man," as he has come to be known (and as the T-shirts he once sold proclaim). Technically, the body part in question is Wood's lower leg, lopped off a few inches below the knee, but "foot" somehow sounds funnier, even though, as Wood's mother notes, "the tale was born of tragedy."

Yes, she talks like that. Despite heavy Southern accents (and, on Whisnant’s part, the occasional malapropism) that make the two protagonists and their friends and family sound a bit like the bumpkins you might assume them to be, Wood and Whisnant come across as surprisingly thoughtful and introspective interview subjects. They are each more self-aware — and comically self-deprecating — than you might think.

I imagine that their wisdom — if that’s even the right word for it — comes from hindsight. Eight years is a long time to think about why you’re fighting over a foot. It helps to understand the way Whisnant thinks when we learn that he announced last year that he was running for president.

Say no more. (Oh, but he will. Whisnant has a serious jones for the limelight.)

As “Finders Keepers” gets weirder, it also gets better and deeper. Somehow, Carberry and Tweel have managed to fashion an inspirational tale out of what one local newscaster calls a “freak show.” In the end, “Finders Keepers” is about Wood’s recovery — and I don’t mean of his foot. This simultaneously sordid and silly yarn begins as the portrait of a sad and broken man who lost a body part, but it ends up being a story about finding oneself.

R. At Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains coarse language and images of a mummified leg.
82 minutes.

(3 stars)