Silk Road is a 2021 thriller from writer/director Tiller Russell, focusing on the true story of Ross Ulbricht who created and operated the darknet marketplace of the same name, selling drugs and other illegal items across the globe. On paper, Silk Road sounds like it should be a fascinating, interesting story and even the trailer makes it appear exciting, but unfortunately it never quite manages to pull off what it promises.
Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) is a mid 20s libertarian from Texas who has a number of failed business ideas behind him when he becomes convinced that he can strike a blow against the system by creating an illegal underground marketplace to seek drugs. The man on his tail is DEA Agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), a former narc who botched his last undercover mission due to drug and alcohol addiction and transferred to Cyber Crime, where he’s introduced to the Silk Road marketplace. The story focuses on both men as they become increasingly involved in the darknet – Ross’s desperation to keep his site running and his identity hidden at all costs, even to the detriment of his relationship with girlfriend Julia (Alexandra Shipp), and Rick’s obsession to be back pursuing a case, resulting in corruption, extortion and even torture.
Silk Road promised so much, but unfortunately unlike Ross Ulbricht, just didn’t deliver. The story is fascinating and watching this has at least made me want to go out and read more about the truth behind this, as somehow this completely passed me by back in 2013. However, Tiller Russell has taken this fascinating tale and turned it into something dull and clichéd. From the opening flash-forward scenes to the cat and mouse chase between Ross and Bowden, there’s little originality on offer here. The story is long, dull and drawn out over 2 hours, and what makes it worse is that it seems to be lacking in any real detail on the true story. How Ross actually set up Silk Road has been glossed over in a brief montage, and the entire operation including Bowden’s entrapment and extortion haven’t faired much better and trying to figure out the timeline here too is impossible. I don’t know if Russell’s intentions were to avoid confusing and over facing the watcher with too much technical jargon, but whatever his motives, he only left us wanting more. There are ways to explain complicated technical matters without alienating the watcher (think The Big Short), but Silk Road just doesn’t bother.
On the surface, Silk Road looks stylish and sleek, but on watching the entire film even the cinematography is questionable. Parts of the film look cheap and poorly made, and there are a lot of shots (especially those with any form of light involved) that seem hazy and have a lot of glare that detracts from the action in the scene. There was even some camerawork that made this look like a shaky-cam documentary rather than the glossy thriller the trailer made it out to be.
The cast doesn’t fare much better either. Nick Robinson is a talented actor which was shown with Love, Simon, but here he’s given virtually nothing to work with as his character spends almost all the entire film staring at his phone or laptop. Alexandra Shipp too is sidelined as the generic girlfriend, and Jimmi Simpson, who I think is a rather engaging yet entirely underrated actor, is given the generic FBI agent role who barely gets a word in. Only Jason Clarke comes out of this unscathed, playing the most developed and interesting character (who incidentally isn’t actually real and an amalgamation of 2 agents on the real-life Ulbricht’s tail), but even he suffers thanks to the faults with the story.
With a fascinating story and a decent cast, Silk Road could’ve been good. In fact, it could’ve been better than good. Instead, it’s execution is it’s downfall, turning an intriguing story into a rather dull affair.
Silk Road is on digital platforms 22 March, from Vertigo Releasing
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