Two different movies collide in Silk Road, a film that opens with a title card telling us that half is based on real journalistic research, and the other half is made up entirely. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to tell the two halves apart. After slowly unspooling the very believable backstory behind the setup of the Silk Road darkweb drug market, a cliched cop thriller is then shoehorned into the retelling of how it was eventually taken down.
Back in 2011, Silk Road revolutionised the recreational drug world. The first black market site started in the untraceable nether regions of the internet, it very quickly became “Amazon for drugs”, with Bitcoin payments and unmarked deliveries ensuring total anonymity for the buyers – and overnight success for the guy who invented it, PhD dropout Russ Ulbricht.
Played here by Nick Robinson (Love, Simon), Ulbricht’s character lands somewhere between The Social Network and V For Vendetta – a nervy overachiever with an aggressively liberal agenda. For Ulbricht, Silk Road has nothing to do with selling weed to anyone with a laptop, and even less to do with making money – it’s about bypassing the state to create a place where true free exchange can take place. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when he starts making $1.2 million a day, almost instantly becoming one of the richest and most powerful names in the business.
Mostly resisting the obvious tropes of films about fast crime and easy money (no fake Scorsese jump cuts), director Tiller Russell does a pretty good job of telling a complicated tale that still feels simple – and Robinson gives Ulbricht plenty of nuance in a role that sees him wrecking relationships, flirting with murder and turning from college kid to international drug kingpin without losing his likeability.
At the same time though, Silk Road has another story to tell. Rick Bowden, aka “Jurassic Narc” (Jason Clarke) has just washed out of his career as a hard-edged, no-nonsense detective by losing his temper with the head of a cartel during an undercover sting. Now forced to join the Cyber Division and sit in an office run by a load of kids less than half his age, he sits behind his laptop spitting out classic lines like: “I was locking up bad guys since before you were shaving your fucking nuts!” and “You millennial motherfuckers… everything you learned you learned from a screen, not staring down the barrel of a gun!” Great as Clarke is at acting hard-boiled, he’s basically playing a cartoon character – nine months from retirement and now stuck snarling at all his old street informants for help on “how to buy weed on YouTube”.
The fact that Bowden literally doesn’t know how to turn on his laptop at the start of the film makes the final act feel even more unearned – with Bowden (of course) being the guy who eventually starts cracking the Silk Road case. Things get worse when he strays into ethically dodgy areas and starts faking murders and rinsing criminals for their bitcoins, his redemption meeting Ulbricht’s downfall in the muddy middle to turn an otherwise decent cybercrime drama into a daft cat and mouse thriller that never quite feels like it knows what it wants to be. A movie about one of the richest, most successful pirates of the modern age really deserves better.
- Director: Tiller Russell
- Starring: Nick Robinson, Jason Clarke, Alexandra Shipp
- Release date: March 22 (video on demand)