Synopsis: The true story of Ross Ulbricht, the charismatic young tech-mastermind who unleashed the darknet website Silk Road, and the corrupt DEA agent determined to bring down his billion-dollar empire.
Stars: Jason Clarke, Nick Robinson, Daniel David Stewart, Alexandra Shipp, Paul Walter Hauser, Jimmi Simpson, Lexi Rabe, Katie Aselton, Will Ropp, Jennifer Yun, Paul Blott
Director: Tiller Russell
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: A handful of movies every year feel like some kind of oddball homework assignment you would have been given in school and been grateful for at the time but serves no purpose outside of a classroom teaching modern history. You go into the movie knowing what the meaning of it all is and at least hoping to get some entertainment value out of it for the time you’re putting in. Usually, there’s one of two performances to draw some memorable moments from or genuine unknown knowledge that can be pocketed as takeaway trivia for your next night with intellectuals as a way to impress them. The wish and hope always is that it’s not just a bland rehash of the facts you could have quickly skimmed a magazine article about that’s been dramatized for effect.
Released in February but totally blown down by review queue by accident, Silk Road is sadly one of those films that is never written into your memory at any point and therefore winds up being an eternal “Did I See That?” title you’ll likely watch the first ten minutes of repeatedly before realizing you’ve seen it before and turn it off. Even writing a review some three months after seeing it I’m straining to remember some basic details so in a way it’s lucky writer/director Tiller Russell’s film isn’t creative in its storytelling and largely sticks to the order of events. Adapting Rolling Stone columnist David Kushner 2014 article “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall”, Russell’s only gutsy instinct is to give the film a bookended framework meant to create some suspense, though if you’ve ever watched a weekly procedural television show you know where it’s all headed. And those are works of fiction.
The film follows the rise of Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson, Shadow in the Cloud), a Texas native that initially started a book selling business online but eventually moved into the trafficking of illegal narcotics once his first endeavor failed. Realizing he needed a stronger network to move his product, protect his customers, and safeguard his money, Ulbricht was a largely self-taught internet whiz that would up creating a piece of the dark web that traded in cryptocurrencies known as Silk Road. Starting out small potatoes and winding up owning the whole crop, Ulbricht was the target of numerous government investigations both overt and behind the scenes as they searched for ways to prove his participation in Silk Road which began to attract all sorts of sordid business dealings.
One person that became obsessed with tracking him down is DEA agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke, Pet Sematary), or, more to the point, Bowden serves as an amalgam of two different agents that tracked Ulbricht over the years. Watching Clarke’s twitchy performance, it often feels like he’s playing two characters as well, with the actor never truly settling into the role and instead overcompensating for his discomfort by going big with everything he does. Clarke is better than this and I honestly don’t know what he’s going for. Bowden comes across not just merely out of the loop on current tech matters but computer illiterate to the point of not knowing how to turn one on. The way Clarke pitches Bowden as on hair-trigger edge makes him feel like more of the villain of the piece than Ulbricht could ever be.
Of course, Ulbricht is the villain and while Robinson has often been quite likable in previous roles he’s neither likable nor gives reason to root against him either. We’re just indifferent to seeing another privileged white male float up the ranks in a origin story that feels similar in many ways to Mark Zuckerberg’s rise as portrayed in The Social Network. Like that Oscar winning film, Ulbricht loses all of his friends and personal romantic relationships on his ascent but then realizes he likes it better being successful because he can replace people with more agreeable cronies. The character is so aggravating that it goes beyond us not liking Ulbricht, the smarminess in Ulbricht and within Bowden makes the entire watch just drag on endlessly.
If the low spot of the film is Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell) as an early Ulbricht recruit (can I just ask something? What in the world is Hauser doing with his career that was only going up? Performances like this, which feature him once again playing a slovenly male, support a stereotype he needs to avoid) then the bright spot is Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Dark Phoenix). Playing Ulbricht’s girlfriend, she sticks around as long as she can until she becomes excess baggage that needs to be jettisoned along with other non-essential items. Shipp understands how to make an impression with limited screen time and I wished we had more time with her.
A trip down the Silk Road is not a journey you’d have to make. Instead, why not read the well-researched Kushner article right here and get the facts yourself. It’s just like watching the movie anyway. I had honestly expected something better from Russell having just come off of watching his fantastic (and fantastically creepy) Netflix miniseries Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer. While it does have some nice touches visually, dramatically this one doesn’t even make it out of the driveway.