Between 2011 and 2013, a mysterious figure under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts launched a platform in the dark web for buying and selling drugs. It was ultimately shut down by the FBI and just last year, the United States government seized more than $1 billion worth of bitcoin connected to the site. The true story of Ross Ulbricht and the founding of his online black market Silk Road is a fascinating tale – it’s a shame, then, that this Hollywoodized thriller is often a far cry from the truth.
Described in press notes as the product of “journalistic research and wild flights of fiction”, Silk Road covers the story of the titular site from its inception to its downfall, which, in reality, is a rather interesting story. Ulbricht is portrayed brilliantly by the ever-reliable Nick Robinson (Love, Simon), who takes the character from optimistic and idealistic dreamer to the paranoid and reclusive shell that Ulbricht ultimately became. Currently serving a life sentence – despite continuing attempts for his release on the aptly named freeross.org – Robinson was never able to meet with Ulbricht to prepare for the role, but thankfully had pages and pages of forum posts, messaging, and journals that the young criminal shared on Silk Road. The result is a performance that feels layered and authentic, but unfortunately, the rest of the film does not.
The cat-and-mouse approach to the story focuses on Ulbricht, and the corrupt DEA agent sworn to bring him down (Jason Clarke). This is where those ‘wild flights of fiction’ come into play, as the film becomes more and more cinematic and farther from the reality of the story. It all feels heavy-handed in its attempts to bring what is ultimately a story of a guy behind his computer into a thriller filled with double-crossings, murder for hire and undercover espionage. As Clarke’s DEA agent gets deeper and deeper into the case and blurs the line between cop and criminal, it all becomes rather tedious and unoriginal. His performance is perfectly serviceable, but far better suited to a different film. The cat-and-mouse tale has Nick Robinson’s mouse being far more interesting than Jason Clarke’s cat, with the obsessed DEA agent often threatening to tear the narrative apart.
A repetitive synth score reminds us constantly of the techy subject of the film, while bizarre editing choices including inexplicable recurring freeze-frame transitions are jarring and laughable. Ultimately, a lot of the film feels disappointingly amateur, and often painfully overt in its “who is the real bad guy here” approach to the story. What should’ve been a dark and engrossing study of Ulbricht and his Silk Road is ultimately a bland, boring and predictable affair.
Silk Road could’ve been The Social Network for 2021, but falls at almost every hurdle despite a stellar performance from Nick Robinson. The true story of the online marketplace is fascinating and would make a brilliant ‘true crime’ documentary series – coincidentally, Silk Road’s director Tiller Russell is part of the creative team behind Netflix’s Night Stalker – but this bland and predictable thriller is a waste of its compelling subject matter.
Silk Road is on digital platforms 22 March from Vertigo Releasing