Silk Road. 2021.
Written and Directed by Tiller Russell
Starring Jason Clarke, Nick Robinson, Daniel David Stewart, Alexandra Shipp, Paul Walter Hauser, Jimmi Simpson, Lexi Rabe, Katie Aselton, Will Ropp, Jennifer Yun, and Darrell Britt-Gibson
Philosophical twenty-something Ross Ulbricht creates Silk Road, a dark net website that sells narcotics, while DEA agent Rick Bowden goes undercover to bring him down.
Documentary filmmaker Tiller Russell is already off to a strong 2021 with Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer having released on Netflix to a positive consensus, whereas his second outputting Silk Road is his first narrative feature although one that plays to his strengths of studying true crime. There are times when Silk Road is not only showing us immoral behavior from its protagonists, it goes as far as letting them mouth off justifications for their actions without necessarily condemning them. At one point, a character brings up that not everything can be seen in black-and-white, which is something that Tiller Russell has emphasized with this adaptation of David Kushner’s magazine article.
Moviegoers have long been fascinated by career criminals, glorification or not, so it’s a surprise that Silk Road has the opposite effect when we are introduced to the ambitious young entrepreneur Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson, who severely lacks charisma in this role, while still delivering a solid enough performance) spouting off edgy libertarian beliefs driving his motivation in life. It’s already offputting the way he sees the world, his deep thinking is really not that interesting, but he does back up his words by creating an untraceable website for the purchasing and receiving of various illegal drugs. He is certainly committed to freedom, performing mental gymnastics that because his buyers need to know how to mask their IP address and use Bitcoin (something fewer people knew how to do back in the early 2010s) they must be smarter than the average drug user and not at risk to get addicted.
Then there’s disgraced narcotics agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke doing some of the best work of his career, relishing in playing a rough around the edges character that plays fast and loose with the rules, seemingly channeling the performances of Michael Shannon for this role) who has not only been transferred to a desk job in the cyber crimes department but is entering a whole new world of investigative work he doesn’t understand. That’s partly because no one wants him to as he’s a recovering drug user liability that botched an ongoing investigation. His superiors are more than happy to just let him do nothing for one more year before he’s due for his pension.
Rick, while offputting in different ways (he makes all kinds of racist remarks while saying something homophobic here and there), is incapable of doing nothing. He does get wind of this new sensation about people buying drugs online but initially can’t do anything about it considering he doesn’t even understand how to send emails. Amusingly, he gets in touch with small-time criminal Rayford (Darrell Britt-Gibson) who is more than willing to educate, but not without laughing his ass off that Rick believes that drugs are being sold on YouTube.
What’s fascinating is that after a three-month time skip, Rick does amass a competent level of understanding regarding basic Internet functions to where he is able to combine that with his own fieldwork to locate Ross, who is of course anonymous on the Internet. As icky as this character can be sometimes, there’s also a surprising amount of empathy as he does know what he is doing to zero in on Ross, eventually finding the underboss first (Paul Walter Hauser in one of his idiosyncratic comedic roles that he is always a hoot to watch as). The kicker is that here shown such so much disrespect his superiors won’t even acknowledge his work even though he can prove he is getting close to catching Ross, leading to some tension over conflicting investigative methods.
Now, there’s actually a lot to spoiler here so that’s as far as I would go with the plot, but really all that needs to be known is Silk Road is a thrilling game of cat and mouse with both digital and real-world footprints where neither protagonist is heroic. It goes without saying that Rick, due to some family reasons that are squeezed in here about as well as they could be, becomes corrupt himself leading to some scintillating mind tricks. It’s an exercise in entertainment that’s lacking in fleshed-out characterizations and a fairly unexciting global Internet criminal. Not to mention, there is a subplot of relationship strife between Ross and his girlfriend Julia (Alexandra Shipp) that’s worthless as every one of her scenes is just her saying “you should probably stop, you’re going to get caught” in different ways to a character that’s as alive as dried paint.
Silk Road is a compulsively watchable tale of crime and moral corruption that could have been legendary in more capable hands, but what’s here is still a doozy of a nailbiter. The butting heads of old school and new school detective work is far more engaging than Nick Robinson’s dry but serviceable take on the creator of the titular website, but when everything converges the stakes and suspense are raised to where most of the flaws are easily overlooked. Aside from that, it’s not really clear what message Tiller Russell is trying to express here, but it’s less of an issue seeing how easy it is to get swept up in this story.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com