A narration opens Tiller Russell’s Silk Road. A young man in a hoody, shades, and flip-flops walks San Francisco’s streets and discusses the barriers between the world as it is and the world that he wants. The world he wants is one of total autonomy and freedom from government control. “Every action we take outside government control strengthens the market and weakens the state,” he says. As a result, and as a way to “take back our liberty,” he creates Silk Road, a website where anyone can buy and sell anything anonymously. The film follows a naive, bright-eyed libertarian and the creation of the biggest online marketplace of illegal goods, the notorious criminal named Dread Pirate Roberts he becomes, and the subsequent investigation by law enforcement that follows. As David Kushner writes in the Rolling Stone article the film is based on, Silk Road “made Ross Ulbricht one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the dot-com age […] It purportedly made him a deadly one too.”
Named after the network of Asian trade routes that connected the East and the West, Silk Road became the dark web hot spot for merchants to trade anything from drugs to weapons (the latter of which the film seems to leave out). Referred to in the film as “eBay for dope fiends,” it was built as a hub for those who wanted to have the anonymity that the rest of the Web doesn’t afford and was a world that Ross (played by Nick Robinson in the film) wished to have: one with a lack of government oversight. New York Senator Chuck Schumer told the press that Silk Road “represents the most brazen attempt to peddle drugs online that we have ever seen.” Using software for encryption and Bitcoin as currency, people and transactions were difficult to trace—until they weren’t.
Spanning years, different cities and states, the film traces the beginning and the end of the first modern darknet market. Specifically, the film focuses on two key players: Ross and Rick Bowden. Played by Jason Clarke, we meet Rick fresh out of rehab. He’s a husband, father, and a cop, basically the only three characteristics given to him. After a drug bust gone bad, he faces a career setback when he’s reassigned to the cybercrimes division. While Ross is busy mastering code and learning the ins and outs of the dark web, Rick, the man who will later be the first to track him down, doesn’t even know how to send an email. Ross is incredibly intelligent. At first, he’s an excited kid at Christmas, ambitious and fueled by reckless abandon. Soon, he gets in way over his head. His first mistake was thinking he could trust everyone on Silk Road’s message boards. As an old drug informant named Rayford (Darrell Britt-Gibson) teaches Rick all about infiltrating the website and getting close to the boss, Ross slips up. The obsession of running this multimillion-dollar black market threatens his relationships and the freedom he sought in creating Silk Road in the first place. Rick also risks ruining both his personal and professional life, as catching Ross becomes a dangerous obsession of its own.
Robinson excels at capturing the different facets of his character, as the excitable guy who just wants to change the world becomes an obsessive, and frankly murderous tycoon. His relationship with his girlfriend Julia (Robinson’s Love, Simon co-star Alexandra Shipp) really helps at emphasizing this change, as the once loving boyfriend becomes neglectful and explosive as money fills his pockets. It’s unfortunate we don’t really learn much about this key person in his life who was there with him from the very beginning. (We don’t even learn what she does for a living in order to afford such a nice apartment.) Clarke is always fun to watch, but he’s playing basically every cop character you’ve already seen before and that we no longer need. Rick is clearly going through some kind of middle-aged crisis due to his bruised ego and simply acts like an entitled white man unwilling to adapt to a different way of doing things, perhaps an example of how law enforcement as an institution is so backwards and corrupt. Paul Walter Hauser makes a delightful, high out of his mind appearance (featuring a ferret) as a drug vendor and eventual employee of Ross. There’s much more to these characters than what’s on the page.
Silk Road is nothing spectacular in terms of filmmaking. It’s uninspiring with some weird, slow-motion cuts sprinkled here and there, but it’s never not engaging. It could surely pique the interest of a millennial audience too busy trying to pass high school or saving for college to care about investing in or paying attention to black market schemes.
Movie Score: 3/5