Synopsis – Philosophical twenty-something Ross Ulbricht creates Silk Road, a dark net website that sells drugs, while DEA agent Rick Bowden goes undercover to bring him down.
My Take – With eBay expanding the strategy and Amazon perfecting it, over the past decade or so, every form of consumer goods, irrespective of their size and volume, have become available to easily purchase online. Hence it doesn’t come as surprise to know that someone decided to use the same technique to go the illegal route.
About 10 years ago, Ross Ulbricht, better known as his online moniker, Dread Pirate Roberts, a brash youngster with an ultra-libertarian, anti-government philosophy, taught himself how to code using YouTube videos and created an Amazon style marketplace on the dark web called the Silk Road, which specialized in illegal drug dealing. A website which turned him a millionaire overnight, and didn’t catch the attention of authorities for a while. But like all such stories go, this one too doesn’t have a happy ending.
Based on the Rolling Stone article “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall” by David Kushner, this film from writer/director Tiller Russell charts his meteoric rise and fall, in tandem with the unhinged DEA agent who initially found him.
With themes such as the misguided ambitions of youth, and the heavy weight of consequence front and center, director Russell seemed to have a fascinating tale on his hands, unfortunately, he also uses the dullest possible way to tell it.
Though a cat-and-mouse tale is never a dull affair, this ambitious film doesn’t quite click, mainly as it uses a Wikipedia styled narrative that explores the radical extremes of both men. Its fast-paced narrative will feed you some basic information, but the lack of substantive shading will leave one wanting more. Adding insult to injury, it has too many subplots and too few moments of suspense, hereby effecting the overall cinematic flow required for a story of such kind.
Set in 2011, the story follows Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) is a twenty something ambitious, and idealistic young man who has always wanted to change the world. With many ideas and failed executions behind him, Ulbricht decides to make a bold play by adapting Amazon’s business model to reach recreational drug users like himself, his girlfriend Julia (Alexandra Shipp), and his best friend (Daniel David Stewart).
And when the trial run turns out to be a success, he proceeds with the ingenious idea of hosting an anonymous narcotics exchange on the Tor network, where buyers and sellers would use cryptocurrency i.e. Bitcoins, to pay for transactions, leading to the launch of Silk Road market place, which quickly turns him into a millionaire overnight, branding himself as Dread Pirate Roberts to a legion of his global admirers.
Meanwhile, DEA Agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke) has just been released from a drug rehab and psychiatric care, and returned home to his wife (Katie Aselton) and young daughter (Lexi Rabe). However, he has been reassigned to Cybercrimes unit, where he is asked to spend the next nine months doing nothing in order to retire with full pension, something which he uncomfortably agrees to, that is until he discovers Silk Road.
Determined to prove his worth again, Rick, completely inept at working with computers, engages an old informant (Darrell Britt-Gibson) to help him navigate the dark web. Setting up a series of events that lead him and Ross Ulbricht on a collision course.
The story also goes on to include an attempted murder-for-hire plot and a quickly forgotten conceit regarding guilt, all in favor of spurring an elaborate cat-and-mouse game. Yet, the film is just so endlessly dull despite its topic, characters, and attempts at injecting suspense. It’s disheartening to see a singular and complex story reduced to middling affair, as the mirrored narratives are connected through the characters’ obsessive pursuit of their goals, yet director Russell completely forgets about establishing motivations in the process.
Also it seems director Russell does not believe in smooth editorial transitions. He uses freeze-frames, then hard cuts between the Ulbricht and Bowden story-lines. The effect feels jarring, done purposely to add an edge to the pacing. The result is that the film plays out as jumbled chapters that I found to be a stylistic nuisance that broke up the plot in an unnatural way.
At the heart of the film’s problems is its depiction of Ulbricht, who isn’t depicted with any nuance, and is never the slightest bit convincing when he makes arguments, and Rick Bowden, a disgraced former addict looking for redemption. The men are polar opposites. Ross speaks enthusiastically about the possibilities his invention offers the world; Bowden, the agent, has to learn to abandon his street-smart approach while struggling through tutorials on how to use the Internet.
Both Ulbricht and Bowden are men obsessed with doing what they see as the right thing despite being more truthfully motivated by simple greed. Neither feels much in the way of regret regarding the lines they cross. And while they’re technically on opposite sides of the law, the film’s attempt to frame them like so many cop/villain pairings in cinema amounts to nothing of note.
The film views both with the same casual respect even as it leans heavier towards Bowden with some third act dialogue choices involving a lazy millennial paling beside the hard work of their elders. The film’s attempt at balancing its two antiheroes leaves neither seeming all that compelling, and it only worsens as the film tilts more of its effort towards the corrupt federal agent.
There’s a myriad of ruminations the film’s story could have touched on, whether that be the ethical concerns within our regulated internet or the innate danger of Ross’ free-market website. But director Russell decides to blend these conceits into one relatively shallow concoction, dancing through ideals with on-the-nose news segments and sanctimonious speeches.
Still, the film remains watchable because both Nick Robinson and Jason Clarke are interesting screen presences. Clarke’s performance makes him just engaging enough as he rams his way through every scene like a film cop on holiday from the 70s, but that makes him no less familiar. Nick Robinson, who is steadily becoming one of the best actors of his generation. Even though Ulbricht’s character is not fleshed out completely, he captures the essence of this disaffected dork, a smart misfit who doesn’t fully grasp the ramifications of what he’s doing.
In a supporting role, Paul Walter Hauser is one of the highlights of the film, who despite having far less screen time, is the far more interesting player in all of this. Alexandra Shipp and Katie Aselton are alright in somewhat thankless roles, while Darrell Britt-Gibson adds the much needed humor. Jimmi Simpson and Will Ropp, have some fun scenes with Clarke. On the whole, ‘Silk Road’ is a meandering effort that fails to capitalize on its fascinating story.
Directed – Tiller Russell
Rated – R
Run Time – 112 minutes