Movie Review: ‘Silk Road’ is a Run-of-the-Mill Thriller
Director: Tiller Russell
Writers: Tiller Russell
Stars: Jason Clarke, Nick Robinson, Katie Aselton, Jimmi Simpson, Daniel David Stewart
Synopsis: Young, idealistic, and driven to succeed, Ross Ulbricht creates Silk Road, the internet’s first unregulated marketplace. When the site becomes a multimillion-dollar pipeline for illicit drugs, Ulbricht draws the attention of Rick Bowden, a dangerously unpredictable DEA agent who uses any means necessary to take him down.
If nothing else, Tiller Russell’s Silk Road is a decent argument for why you shouldn’t spend time with libertarians. This insipid retelling of Ross Ulbricht’s revolutionary project The Silk Road – think Amazon but for illegal drugs – clearly supports the Penn State alum’s ideals, but doesn’t do quite enough to make them appealing for anyone else.
Played by Nick Robinson (who gives a lackluster performance and looks like he was perma-stoned throughout the whole shoot, but perhaps that’s the point), Ross Ulbricht is your typical dotcom Silicon Valley type (he is never out of a pair of flip flops) who looks down on everyone he sees as being significantly dumber than he is. As many in his generation do, he bounces around trying to find his niche in life: day trading, a video game start up company, a used bookseller. All ventures fail, until The Silk Road.
Ulbricht developed economic libertarian ideals at University and frequent voice-overs throughout Silk Road expound on the virtues of freedom from government influence. These voice-overs were taken directly from his blog on The Silk Road site and highlight just how arrogant he really was. It was these ideals that led him to create The Silk Road, a dark-web marketplace where anyone can purchase drugs using cryptocurrency which is then paid into an escrow. It is an overnight success story: earning articles in Gawker and Rolling Stone, the latter of which provides the basis for the screenplay here. It also makes him rich.
Unfortunately for Ulbricht it also puts him in the sights of FBI agent Rick Bowden (played with gruff stoicism by Jason Clarke). Bowden represents the old guard, a breed of detective used to getting their hands dirty in order to catch bad guys. Practically a Luddite, he stares dead-eyed at his young colleagues who catch villains using computers instead of knocking on doors. He is introduced here just fresh from rehab. His superiors don’t want him on the streets – where they consider him a liability – so to run down the clock until his retirement they stick him in cybercrimes. Furious about this, Bowden decides to prove he’s still got what it takes; he enlists the help of computer-savvy CI Rayford (an amusing turn from Darrell Britt-Gibson) and sets about taking down Ulbricht’s criminal empire.
You would be forgiven for hearing this story and drawing conclusions about its similarities to The Social Network. After all, they share a type of DNA: arrogant but genius loner creates website which becomes much bigger than he anticipated. Law enforcement gets involved to deal with an unprecedented issue. Complex moral conundrums arise around the existence of an entity which no one has the ability to regulate. All the ingredients are there. Unfortunately, whereas The Social Network benefitted from masterclass direction and screenwriting, Silk Road lacks both of these and feels like a fairly middle-of-the-road thriller without too much to say.
The main thrust is Ulbricht’s attempts to keep up with the monster of his own creation, sacrificing his relationship with his girlfriend Julia (Alexandria Shipp, given little to do) and his best friend Max (Daniel David Stewart, the same) in the process. He becomes more and more invested in The Silk Road as it spirals out of control and clearly needs more than one person running it. Meanwhile, Bowden is close on his trail, integrating his way into Ulbricht’s inner circle through The Silk Road, leading to a scene stealing turn from Paul Walter Hauser (who is making a habit of this now) as Ulbricht’s right hand man Curtis.
Part of the problem with Silk Road is that no character is instantly compelling, least of all Ulbricht who is self-absorbed from the offset and often a chore to spend time with. Jason Clarke’s Bowden is arguably the most interesting character in that he has more of an arc: the dinosaur-in-a-new-age narrative has been done to death by now, but Clarke is charismatic and likable enough to keep your attention throughout. As he deals with a boss half his age (“I was locking up bad guys before you were shaving your balls” Bowden snarls to him at one point) and a crime he doesn’t fully understand (“I need someone to show me how to buy dope on YouTube” he says to Rayford) your sympathies lie much closer with him than it ever could with someone like Ulbricht.
And yet you feel Russell is trying to make a point about the necessity of something like The Silk Road. Spending as much time as we do with Ulbricht – and having access to his blogs – means there’s a suggestion of complicity which is difficult to swallow. Perhaps if there was more time spent dissecting the wider ramifications of The Silk Road – there is the implicit idea that it could end the war on drugs and potentially save lives, but also there is the potential for other, more sinister, sales in a completely unregulated marketplace such as child pornography or sex slaves – then we could gain a better understanding of the stakes involved. As it is, Silk Road plays more like a run-of-the-mill thriller than anything else. It is a decent watch, but you feel there was potential in this story for much more.