Silk Road is available to rent or buy from 22nd March on all major platforms.
Who is Ross Ulbricht? For those who follow the news, his name may be familiar but equally evasive as you try to picture him. So let me remind you. Ulbricht created the Silk Road website, an Amazon-inspired dark web shopping mall. Ulbricht’s actions would lead to a lifetime prison sentence, but mystery still surrounds his role in the Silk Road. After all, was the famous Dread Pirate Roberts a visionary businessman, a libertarian or just an opportunistic youth who wanted to stick two fingers up to the establishment? In Director Tiller Russell’s Silk Road, Ulbricht is just a smart kid with a bright idea for personal wealth who quickly gets in way over his head, and hence lies a problem, as Russell’s film never quite gets under the skin of its protagonist.
Based on David Kushner’s 2014 Rolling Stone magazine article “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall.” Russell struggles to identify the motivations behind Ulbricht’s Silk Road venture, opting for a far more safe crime thriller premise. Here, Russell combines elements of Fincher’s The Social Network with a classic cat and mouse crime thriller. But as a result, there is little room to explore Ulbricht’s psychological need for success at any cost. That does not mean what we are offered is weak or uninteresting, but the high-stakes drama plays fast and loose with the facts.
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As the film opens, a sandal-wearing, hoodie-cloaked young man walks into a San Francisco Public Library. The young man in question is Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson); his jittery movements, unshaven face and tired eyes symbolic of a man out of his depth and out of places to run. As he sits at a desk and pulls out his laptop, Ulbricht is unaware of the federal agents surrounding him, each waiting for him to log in to his now world-famous Silk Road site. However, just as Ulbricht begins typing, his phone rings and a mysterious voice stops him in his tracks.
We are then taken back to a Texas bar where the confident and idealistic Ulbricht woos Julia (Alexandra Shipp) with his libertarian values and beliefs, leading to the start of a long and loving relationship. Early into his relationship with Julia, Ulbricht floats the idea of a new business venture to Julia and his best friend Max (Daniel David Stewart)- the Silk Road, a dark web Amazon for drugs. Meanwhile, just across town, a disgraced police officer Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), is fresh out of rehab; his punishment on returning to work a move from the drugs unit to cybercrime, where his unorthodox policing style is neither welcome nor supported by his new colleagues. But, as the Silk Road booms and the money pours in, could Bowden’s belief in street-level policing be the answer to cracking Ulbricht’s new enterprise?
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What follows is a cat-and-mouse thriller with engaging central performances from Nick Robinson, Alexandra Shipp and Jason Clarke. There are moments where the narrative offers brief glimpses of brilliance, for example, a tense family dinner where Ulbricht introduces Julia to his mother and father. Here his father’s scathing dismissal of his son’s business ventures offers a brief insight into Ulbricht’s psyche. But alas, this never finds further development. Equally strong is Bowden’s struggle to find acceptance in a police service where his talents no longer fit the image of the service. But again, many of the building blocks of Bowden’s character feel underdeveloped. In these moments of deeper character exploration, Silk Road sings before returning to a standard crime thriller template. The result is an over-simplistic study of a complex individual that leaves us none the wiser as to Ulbricht’s motivation and drive.
Nick Robinson and Alexandra Shipp also star in Love Simon.