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Silk Road – Entertaining, fast-paced but ultimately thin

Silk Road is available to rent or buy from 22nd March on all major platforms

Who is Ross Ulbricht? For any of you who follow the news, his name will undoubtedly be familiar; after all, he created the Silk Road website and gave birth to the concept of Amazon inspired shopping on the dark web. However, there are much deeper questions surrounding Ulbricht’s actions, which led to a lifetime prison sentence. For example, was Ulbricht, or ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’, a visionary businessman, or a libertarian who believed in sticking two fingers up at the establishment? Maybe he was neither; just a smart kid with a bright idea for personal wealth who quickly got in way over his head. These questions never quite find solid ground in writer/director Tiller Russell’s new thriller Silk Road. A film based on David Kushner’s 2014 Rolling Stone magazine article “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall.”

However, while Russell struggles to identify the core reasons, motivations and actions behind Ulbricht’s Silk Road venture, he does provide us with an engaging if thin thriller. One built on fact, fiction and a big dose of creative license. Here, elements of Fincher’s The Social Network merge with the classic drug-running drama template; neither allowed to inspire something striking, bold or truly innovative. That does not mean what is on offer is weak; in fact, Silk Road is often entertaining, fast-paced, and thoughtful; a great Saturday night thriller that engages throughout.

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As the film opens, a sandal-wearing, hoodie cloaked young man walks into a San Francisco Public Library in 2013. The young man in question is Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson). His jittery actions, unshaven face and tired eyes symbolic of a man out of his depth. As he sits down at a desk and pulls out his laptop, Ulbricht is unaware of the federal agents surrounding him, each one waiting for him to log in to his now world-famous Silk Road site. However, just as Ulbricht begins typing, his phone rings, a mysterious voice stopping him in his tracks.

We are then taken back in time to a Texas bar where the geeky, confident and idealistic Ulbricht successfully woos Julia (Alexandra Shipp) with his libertarian values and beliefs. Their first encounter, leading to a new loving relationship. However, when Ulbricht floats the idea of a new business venture, Julia finds herself not knowing whether to laugh or support his intentions. But, when best friend Max (Daniel David Stewart) comes on board with the idea, the infamous Silk Road is born. Meanwhile, fresh out of rehab, disgraced police officer Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke) finds himself reassigned from the drugs unit to cybercrime. His unorthodox policing style neither welcome nor supported in a police service trying to change its image. 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 enterprise?

What follows is a cat and mouse cybercrime thriller with superb central performances from Nick Robinson, Alexandra Shipp and Jason Clarke. The narrative offering brief glimpses of brilliance. For example, a tense family dinner where Ulbricht introduces Julia to his mother and father. His father scathing of his sons business ventures while also demanding of his success. Or Bowden’s struggles to be accepted and valued in a police service where his talents are no longer fit for service. Equally impressive is the slow decline in Ulbricht’s mental health, his wide smile slowly replaced by fear, apprehension and doubt. In these moments of brilliance, Silk Road is at its most engaging, energetic, and thoughtful.

However, despite these moments of brilliance Silk Road struggles to identify its core messages. The wider narrative caught in a trap of how to portray Ulbricht. The result, an over-simplistic Hollywood inspired character study of a far more complex individual.

Nick Robinson and Alexandra Shipp also star in Love Simon