Sometimes it seems that rural white southern males are the last permissibly mockable group in these United States. Good’ol boys living all along the NASCAR belt drawl some bit of rural rube ridiculousness, and America giggles. And tunes in, when they hit “reality” TV.
I was prepared to grit my teeth over “Finders Keepers,” a documentary about two Carolina rednecks fighting over custody of an amputated foot. And filmmakers Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel never hesitate to let these two put their, um, feet in it. The laugh-out-loud moments come mainly their bumpkins’ lack of self-awareness.
Such as when pot-bellied “entrepreneur” Shannon Whisnant scratches his goatee and declares, “Ah’m purty smart. I’m sure y’all figured that out by now.”
But Carberry and Tweel take this story, which made national “news of the odd” waves when it happened, and go deeper. And “Finders Keepers” makes that nearly impossible journey from mockery to understanding. Not all the way to sympathy, mind you, just “Maybe this is how they got to BE this way.”
John Wood lost his foot in an airplane accident near his hometown of Maiden, N.C. He told the doctors he wanted to keep his foot. He did, in all its gruesome, gory glory. He wanted the “meat” stripped off it, but couldn’t find anybody to do it. Thought about “mummifying it.” That didn’t really work.
But then he got evicted and packed everything he owned into a storage unit — the foot stuffed into a barbecue grill. And that’s how Shannon Whisnant got his hands on it, at auction, the kind you see on TV’s “Storage Wars.”
Whisnant did the right thing. He called the cops, and they took it to a mortuary and figured out who it belonged to. Then Whisnant did the wrong thing. He demanded the foot back. He made T-shirts. He pushed himself into the media and made a spectacle as “the Foot Man,” telling his story and promising to sell peeks at the foot when it was returned.
And Wood? He was dismayed, then irked at this fellow who thought “he was gonna be the next Billy Bob Thornton!”
Let the Foot Fight begin.
“It’s a funny story,” Wood’s tough, sage mother Peg says, but one “borne of tragedy.”
The filmmakers then tell us each man’s back story, and “Finders Keepers” transcends its “Look at the silly hillbillies” opening.
Wood’s father died in that plane crash. Wood has drug problems. And Whisnant? He resents Wood’s relatively privileged upbringing. And more than anything on Earth, Whisnant wants to be famous. He seizes this foot as his main chance.
“Finders Keepers” manipulates the stories like reality TV, pushing the viewers’ allegiance away from this man and towards that one, back and forth. Layers peel away. Each man seems to get the absurdity of their situation, but never how absurd they seem in it.
Naturally, it all comes down to TV’s “Judge Mathis” to resolve this, and the robed entertainer never seemed more Solomonic than with this case.
But that’s not the end, just the beginning of the end. Each man’s motives suggest that each will get pretty much exactly what he deserves. And along the way, we get to sit back and laugh in judgement, because as clever as it is, “Finders Keepers” never can quite turn the mirror away from the pride of Maiden, N.C., and back on us, the rubes sucked into this story in all its many incarnations.
Cast: John Wood, Shannon Whisnant, Peg Wood,
Credits: Directed by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay e. An Orchard release.
Running time: 1:22