Movie Review: 'Silk Road'
The cast outshines stunted narrative in Silk Road.
From 2011 to 2013, you could hardly engage in internet content without hearing about Silk Road. Silk Road was the pirate, dark web, website where users were able to obtain just about anything they desired. Pioneered by young entrepreneur, Ross Ulbricht, Silk Road was a fiefdom, an 'international waters' on the internet, the wild west of the World Wide Web.
Even if you avoided the site or weren't savvy enough to navigate to it, you heard about it. Silk Road was envisioned by Ulbricht as the Amazon.com of contraband. Amazon was a model that Ulbricht admired so much that he incorporated buyer and seller reviews and ratings into the sales of weed, Meth, and cocaine. A self proclaimed libertarian, Ulbricht claimed he was simply expressing contempt for the hypocrisy in the American war on drugs and celebrating personal freedom. That the site made him millions in bitcoin transaction fees was merely a perk.
There was no shortage of schadenfreude when the arrogant, 20 something Ulbricht was busted by federal agents for cybercrimes and attempting to orchestrate murders via the internet. The guy dubbed himself 'The Dread Pirate Roberts,' and fancied demonstrating how much smarter he was than everyone else, it's no surprise that there weren't many defenders lining up to side with Ulbricht. And, when Ulbricht was ultimately tricked by the NSA into leaving his secure laptop open to the admin site of Silk Road, as he was being arrested, many could not help but revel in his ignominious demise.
The new movie Silk Road, starring Love Simon star, Nick Robinson, as Ulbricht, doesn't revel in Ulbricht's humiliation. In fact, writer-director Tiller Russell, whether intentionally or through minor incompetence in storytelling, appears to side with Ulbricht and his notion of what freedom on the internet looks like. By softening Ulbricht's edges and having him played by the babyfaced Robinson, Russell is attempting to lull audiences into siding with the man who created a dark web haven for criminals as vast and wide ranging as your typical street weed dealer to illegal arms dealers and child pornographers.
This seemingly sympathetic approach to Ulbricht extends to the portrayal of those trying to stop Ulbricht, especially those in the world of cybercrimes, as arrogant dolts whose maneuvers are repeatedly outwitted by a twentysomething computer nerd and a luddite DEA Agent. In a sop to the right wing of libertarianism, the movie venerates old school cop tactics over new school cyber surveillance. Never mind the never before seen challenges of internet crimes epitomized by Silk Road and the needed expertise of those working in that realm, those guys are no match for an old beat cop willing to torture confessions out of below average criminals. Older, white, right wing libertarians will appreciate the movie in that way.
Silk Road stars Jason Clarke as that technologically challenged DEA Agent I just mentioned, Rick Bowden. Fresh out of rehab and recently having survived a badly botched bust, Bowden is returning home and returning to work with a great deal of skepticism. At home, his wife Sandy (Katie Aselton) doesn’t trust his newfound sobriety for a second. At work, he’s been busted down to the computer crime team where he’s supposed to merely occupy a desk until he becomes eligible for his pension, a gift from his former boss who saved him from being completely tossed out of the Agency.
Bowden however, is not ready to be put out to pasture. He may not know much about cybercrime but he’s determined to bring his old school brand of investigation to the new school of online crime. To do that, Rick employs a former street informant named Rayford (Darrell Britt-Gibson) who, as luck would have it, has just discovered a new website. The Silk Road is the new frontier for drug sales on the dark web.
Parallel to Rick’s story is that of the creator of the Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht. Ross is an underachiever looking for a get rich quick scheme. After getting a degree in physics, Ross abandons academia in favor of a series of failed business ventures. Then, with his Libertarian beliefs driving his creative mind, Ross gets into bitcoin, the dark web, and the opportunity to develop the Amazon.com of the drug world.
The Silk Road was launched using technology created by the military. It allows for the creation of an encrypted website that can only be accessed by those savvy enough to find it. Those savvy few find a wild west of outlaw dealers using bitcoin and the U.S Mail to send drugs and money around the United States. The movie Silk Road depicts Ulbricht’s obsession with libertarian ideals, capitalism, and just trying to prove he was smarter than everyone else.
Silk Road, the movie, has a number of weak spots. The weakest of which is the depiction of any member of law enforcement that isn’t Bowden. Every other member of law enforcement in Silk Road is depicted as an incompetent, egotist who treats Bowden like the plague. The movie desperately overplays the notion that Bowden is special because he attacks cybercrime with an old school detective’s street smarts. Poor Jimmy Simpson gets the worst of it as an NSA Agent who actually arrests Ross Ulbricht. Though he was the one to make the bust, the interaction between his agent and Clark’s Bowden is almost embarrassingly stilted.
The truly frustrating thing about Silk Road the movie is that Jason Clarke is really good in it. Despite a sloppy script that uses him as a prop to shape Ulbricht's story into something more traditionally cinematic, a dogged detective story that happens to have a modern setting on the dark web, Clarke transcends the bad to create a very compelling character. It's been a while since I've liked Jason Clarke in a movie but unlike his dull-eyed, auto-pilot performances in Serenity and Pet Cemetery, he appears genuinely invested in Silk Road. He makes a stock and functional role into an entertaining and engaging performance.
I’m not demanding that Silk Road the movie be held to the standard of a documentary level of accuracy in telling the story of Silk Road the website. But, there is a particularly fumbling sense that the filmmakers are siding so much with Ulbricht that they are conveniently ignoring less noble aspects of the young entrepreneur. This is especially true of a postscript prior to the credits where the writer-director acts as an advocate for Ulbricht, essentially advocating that Ulbricht did not deserve the life sentence he received for his crimes.
Ulbricht's crimes which included two incidents of paying for murders that never actually happened, though he intended them to happen, and creating and protecting the identities of criminals including illegal arms dealers and child pornographers, are glossed over in favor of portraying Ulbricht as a put upon genius punished by an uncaring system eager to destroy an economic market that it could not exert control over. I won't argue that the government isn't a greedy monster looking to crush the little guy in favor of rich fat cats but Ross Ulbricht is the wrong martyr for this crusade.
That said, allow me to give credit to Nick Robinson whose performance doesn't venerate Ulbricht. Robinson's vibe is to capture Ulbricht's self defeating obsessiveness. He's not smiling or charismatic, he was a man who lived like a king in the online world, flaunting wealth and influence beyond his IRL identity. As played by Robinson, Ulbricht isn't having fun, he's dour, glowering, mopey and obsessed. Credit Tiller Russell for allowing Robinson to play the character this way but again, I can't escape that Robinson's performance isn't framed as sympathetic by the sheer presentation of how sad he is even as he rakes in millions off of the suffering of others.
Silk Road is premiering simultaneously in theaters and on Apple TV on February 19th.