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'Silk Road' Review: Libertarian kingpins are the worst

There's a good story here, but not the one you think

Jason Clarke stars in 'Silk Road.'
(Image: © Lionsgate)

Our Verdict

A neat little character study that, unfortunately, seems interested in studying the wrong character.

For

  • 💊 Jason Clarke in another bad-husband role.
  • 💊 Paul Walter Hauser steals every scene.
  • 💊 Surprising effective take on workplace ageism?

Against

  • 💊 Nobody cares about Ross Ulbricht.
  • 💊 Seriously, nobody cares about Ross Ulbricht.

 In 2014, Rolling Stone magazine published a lengthy article on the rise and fall of Ross Ulbricht. Titled “Dead End on Silk Road,” the article explored Ulbricht’s efforts to create a global marketplace for illegal narcotics – named Silk Road after the historical trade route – and his subsequent arrest and imprisonment for drug trafficking and attempted murder. Now, almost a year after its aborted premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, Tiller Russell’s Silk Road is here to feed our never-ending appetite for movies based on true crimes and long-form journalism.

Ever since he can remember, Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) has wanted to change the world. Until then, he is content to bum around the city of Austin, teaching himself to code and discussing his Libertarian values with his girlfriend, Julia (a woefully underutilized Alexandra Shipp). “Every action we take outside of government strengthens the market and weakens the state,” he explains to those who will listen, but this platitude is more than just a personal philosophy. Before long, Ulbricht will use it as the founding principal of Silk Road, an eCommerce site for illegal narcotics.

Serving as both a black marketplace and a Wikipedia – Ulbricht frequently shares how-to guides for safely mailing drugs and other illegal activities –Silk Road soon takes off, making its creator something of an overnight anti-government celebrity. It also puts him squarely in the crosshairs of Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), a disgraced DEA agent playing out his final months of employment in the cybercrime division. As Bowden digs into the structure of the dark web, he also finds that the very skillset that renders him obsolete in the eyes of his superiors puts him in the right place to benefit from Ulbricht’s Silk Road empire.

While much of Ulbricht’s story is lifted directly from the 2014 Rolling Stones article, Clarke’s Bowden is an amalgamation of several real-life DEA agents revealed in the months that followed Ulbricht’s arrest. On the one hand, this approach allows Clarke to serve as something of an audience surrogate, the Luddite cop who can ask the questions the viewers need to know. But rather than detract from the Social Network­-esque escalation of the main narrative, he soon emerges as the film’s most compelling character. In peak bad-husband mode as always, Clarke turns a middling cyberthriller into a fascinating exploration of ageism in the workplace.

Bowden’s early struggles to understand his new cybercrime division – in one early scene, we find him watching a YouTube video explaining how to use the internet – are meant to do more than contrast him with Ulbricht’s high-tech operation. As Bowden learns more about Silk Road’s inner workings, the film digs into the generational disconnect present with his millennial superiors. And when Bowden decides to skim money for himself, Clarke’s world-weary presence underlines the cold calculation in his act. His actions aren’t read as shortsighted or desperate. Like so many of the Silk Road’s anonymous users, he recognized a profitable trade when he saw it.

When Silk Road focuses on this storyline – the aging cop who teaches himself how to turn Bitcoin into a redemption arc in the eyes of his family – the film fascinates. Even better, Clark shines in scenes with actors like Jimmi Simpson and Paul Walter Hauser, both of whom add some much-needed pulp to the narrative. But for every scene with Bowden, there’s a corresponding scene with Ulbricht, and here is where Silk Road fails to find its voice. What may seem promising on paper – the rise and fall of a more-overtly immoral Mark Zuckerberg – falls flat in action. There’s only so much drama to be wrung from Ulbricht’s anti-government screeds and the slow dissolution of his personal life. Since Robinson spends most of the film making worried faces at his laptop, the rise-and-fall of “the first millennial gangster” feels more like a web two-point-plateau.

Not all of this is the fault of Tiller Russell the Screenwriter. Tiller Russell the Director also fails to provide the film with a distinctive visual aesthetic that might sew together its disparate elements. While Silk Road does dabble in the occasional multi-dynamic image technique or freeze-frame – perhaps meant to evoke the period crime thrillers that helped establish the genre – these touches feel more like one-off affections than a coherent visual style. Movies about criminal enterprises can be grounded or stylized, but the best examples make the visual “how” as interesting as the narrative “what.” Unfortunately, by choice or by edit, Russell does not seem up to the task.

It may not be reasonable to ask the producers to strip Ulbricht entirely from his own story, but the truth is - minus the narcotics angle - there’s very little to separate this story from any other white-collar crime. Even as much as Silk Road finds a mostly satisfying ending for everyone involved, there’s a better movie hanging about the margins. That film focuses on the ways law enforcement has evolved to meet a new generation of cybercriminals (and harangues a new breed of business school agents in the process). As with so many movies, what remains works well enough, but there’s a faint whiff of greatness about Silk Road that makes one wonder.

Silk Road will be available to stream Friday, February 19th.