What starts out alternately comic and catastrophic ends in unforeseen poignancy in "Finders Keepers," a documentary that proves that truth is stranger than fiction. Way stranger.
As the story of a fierce custody battle over a mummified human leg between antagonists who once appeared on TV's "World's Dumbest Hillbillies," "Finders Keepers" presents characters who would be completely at home in a Flannery O'Connor short story.
Yet directors Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel stick with this story long enough to emotionally deepen the proceedings and show us how the struggle changes lives in profound ways no one could have anticipated.
This is a complex and unusual story, and Carberry and Tweel unpeel it gradually, starting with one of the protagonists, John Wood, walking purposefully toward a mini-storage facility in Maiden, N.C.
It was into Unit 48 of that establishment that Wood, unable to pay his house rent because of substance abuse problems, put all his possessions in late summer 2005. Those worldly goods included a barbecue smoker, into which Wood hid his own mummified leg.
That leg had been amputated a year earlier after a small plane crash, in which Wood's father died. For a variety of reasons, Wood wanted to keep the leg, even going to the trouble of doing amateur mummification on it.
So matters stood until 2007, when Wood's inability to pay the storage fees led to an auction of the contents of his storage locker. The winning bidder was Shannon Whisnant, a self-described "flea market entrepreneur" who, once he got over the shock of seeing the leg, developed all kinds of grandiose plans for it.
A persuasive talker who freely admits "I always wanted to be famous," Whisnant thought the leg could be turned into a major tourist attraction and would make his fortune.
After Wood emerged as the original owner, Whisnant refused to give the leg back, got a vanity license plate reading "Ftsmoker 1," made T-shirts to sell reading "I'm Friends With the Foot Man" and in general believed this was his date with destiny. "Hell, it was mine," he says in the film of the limb in question. "I bought it."
Naturally the media, first local and national and then international, couldn't believe their luck when these events became public. Stories about a "foot fight" and a "custody battle over a foot" were everywhere, and an enterprising TV program in Germany even flew both men to Hamburg so they could debate the relative merits of their positions before a studio audience.
As "Finders Keepers" unfolds and the filmmakers spend more time with both men, initially unseen elements come to the fore, including elements of class, family dynamics and the current American fascination with celebrity.
Wood's father, as it turned out, was a top executive at the Ethan Allen furniture company and one of the most prosperous men in Maiden. When Whisnant calls John Wood "a spoiled brat," decades of resentment can be sensed in that remark. Similarly, the drug problems that led Wood to temporarily lose custody of his amputated leg caused serious ruptures with his mother.
Though the subject matter of "Finders Keepers" can sound morbid and freakish, its true lure is its examination of the intricacies of human psychology and the vagaries of chance. Where Wood and Whisnant would be today if they had never fought over that foot is a question they've surely asked themselves, and more than once.
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes