Clay Tweel is a name that should be known to any documentary fan. After serving as an associate producer on Seth Gordon’s The King of Kong, he went on to direct his first feature, the surprisingly sharp teen-magician film Make Believe, which is better than its conventional competition-doc surface indicates, and then he co-directed last year’s riveting exploration of the 3D printer market, Print the Legend, which in a way is also a competition doc only with very high, entrepreneurial stakes. For the most part, those two are dissimilar animals, though together they’d hinted that Tweel could maybe do no wrong with clean, non-complex subject matter of any sort. He has a talent for delivering reality in an entertaining yet not sensationalistic way.
His latest, co-directed with Bryan Carberry (a multitasked intern on Make Believe) and produced by Gordon, is called Finders Keepers, and it’s his closest to the line of sensational exploitation. It’s therefore the most reminiscent of The King of Kong, albeit with less of a shared sense of delineated good guys and bad guys than his past two features have. This new doc involves a pair who are as antagonistic as true human beings can get. On one side is John Wood, whose amputated leg wound up for auction because it was being kept inside of an old grill in his storage unit, and he’d failed to pay the rent. Shannon Whisnant is the man who acquired the grill and the limb inside, and he saw the latter as a business opportunity. But he didn’t get far into his plan of charging locals for a glimpse at the find before Wood showed up to reclaim his property, and a long and heated and mediated custody battle ensued.
That basic scenario is even crazier than it sounds, as told firsthand by these two characters. Right away we hear about the leg’s journey after its removal — and visualize it through animation — including a short stint in a Hardees freezer, and it’s all very funny and unbelievable. Much of the humor comes out of the subjects’ misfortunes, such as when Wood quickly, nonchalantly rattles off how he’s survived a plane crash, electrocution and being run over by a garbage truck, but it’s never at their expense in a way where Tweel and Carberry come across as hosting a freak show. In fact, I get the impression they mean to do the opposite, especially when we see the contrast in clips of Whisnant’s appearance on The Jerry Springer Show and, later, a reality TV program where a distinction is heavily implied between the emotional truthfulness of what we’re seeing on screen and what manipulation and mockery is going on with that other production.
Long before that, Finders Keepers lays it on us hard that this isn’t just some fool’s folly where we laugh at the yokels. After the first 10 minutes, through which we’re clearly intended to be cracking up nonstop as we become familiar with Wood and Whisnant and their bewildering battle, tragedy strikes. Or, at least a tragedy that had struck is abruptly brought up and into the picture in a serious and sober tone that’s a 180 from what preceded. Wood not only lost his leg in the aforementioned plane crash, but also his father died in the accident, and that led him down a path of guilt-ridden addiction. It is incredibly sad, especially as we hear about it from Wood’s mother and sister and friends. The initial comical stuff suddenly gains a new perspective, as this whole ridiculous tale is revealed to be a comedy rooted in disaster.
The comedy doesn’t stop, though. Tweel and Carberry quickly bring us back into the wild and remarkable and often humorous course of storytelling, but then they also keep returning to the sadness, too, the doc structured in waves as if representing the ups and downs of the subjects’ swaying temperaments. Neither of the two characters is particularly likable or unlikable at any point in the film, though they both have their share of some endearing moments, notably none of which are found in the archive material of talk show and news program appearances. I believe that Wood and Whishnat and especially Whishnat’s wife didn’t think the film was a big enough deal that it powered a substantial spotlight. Or they just trusted the filmmakers and were given more room to be themselves rather than tools of amusement.
In Finders Keepers’ way of veering close to sensationalism but not crossing the line, it’s akin to The Queen of Versailles for drawing us in with outrageous people and premise and then delivering a deeper and more sensitive take on fame, fortune, class, capitalism, justice and grief than is expected. It too starts out as stranger than fiction and then becomes more real than “reality,” a complex and complicated film that shows us common people in unusual circumstances, a portrait of America as familiar as it is uncanny. With this, Tweel proves he can also do right with more intricate and difficult material, further fulfilling his place as one of the most interesting and reliable (and definitely underrated) documentarians in the scene today.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2015.