In one of the earliest scenes of Silk Road, a scraggly-bearded Nick Robinson half-heartedly perks up from his bed to address a radiant Alexandra Shipp the morning after a party hookup, and he declares his philosophy, his take on the role of man, government, and the freedoms therein. You don’t need to know what he says word for word, because what’s more important is Shipp’s reaction.
“Please don’t tell me I just f***ed a libertarian.”
In the film, Robinson plays the real-life Ross Ulbricht, who created a black market for illegal drugs and other illicit goods via the Dark Web back in 2011. He naturally called it “Silk Road,” harkening back to the old-fashioned ways of individuals trading and bartering with one another in the ancient world. Why let a silly little thing like government get in the way of a drug deal? Better yet, what if you could buy your illicit goods without having to go through all the trouble and danger of interacting with people at all?
This line of thinking led Silk Road to tremendous success in the first half of the last decade, and the film does what it can to infuse some complexity into what would otherwise be an overly familiar tech-bro-run-amok narrative. While Ulbricht sees his vision to “change the world” as a traditional, maybe even eternal ideal, his foil is a recently disgraced DEA agent who truly fits the bill of “traditional.” Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke) can’t even transfer photos from his digital camera to his computer, but after getting reassigned to cyber crimes as punishment for going native, he commits to using his “boots on the ground” mentality to bust open one of the most lucrative online drug operations to date and maybe do right by his daughter, because yes, this is, in fact, a dad movie.
At first glance, Silk Road certainly looks and feels like a gasping, “boomers can get the job done” type of film, and that’s certainly an aspect of its ethics, just not the full story. In real life, Ulbricht is still considered something of a controversial folk hero, and he’s referred to almost reverently by Bowden as a “millennial gangster.” The director, Tiller Russell (who just came out with the buzzy docu-series “Night Stalker” on Netflix this week) doesn’t seem willing to frame either Ulbricht or Bowden as villains, or even antagonists to one another. Instead, the film posits that the real enemy is entitlement. Millennials, particularly in law enforcement, feel entitled to handling all things technology over their boomer counterparts, and then there’s the people who feel entitled to having a Deep Web in the first place that can circumvent the guard rails, and actually those are millennials, too. Maybe Russell just has a thing against millennials.
Whatever the case, Silk Road is certainly a watchable, compressed outline of a story that is probably a lot more interesting than what’s brought to screen, despite a solid effort. The script is roughly adapted from David Kushner’s Rolling Stone article “Dead End on Silk Road,” as it borrows entire segments of dialogue from the typically recluse Ulbricht and uses these diatribes to bookend the film’s intrigue with varying, cryptic voiceover. If you’ve ever watched a TV series with hour-long episodes and thought, “Maybe this would’ve worked better as a movie,” this is probably that movie. It’s good in that it doesn’t overstay its welcome or manufacture an excessive amount of stretched plot turns, but it’s only passable when it comes to depicting cyber crime and IRL drama as a gripping, enticing affair that provokes debate beyond a shouting match between young adults and their parents.
The film’s lack of cinematic flavor is almost understandable, considering the obvious challenge of making laptop keystrokes and online eBay-esque transactions both exciting and suspenseful. But even if Silk Road had been made in 2015, we’d still be on the heels of the first season of “Mr. Robot” and five years removed from The Social Network, both of which prove there can be dynamic, even iconic flair behind capturing dark web paranoia. And there’s certainly room for contrasting the generational differences between a naive kid in over his head and an aging veteran who brings the fear and reality of, well, reality to said kid’s doorstep that makes for some chilling character drama. Unfortunately, Silk Road is barely a notch above anonymous in that regard.
Silk Road is a Lionsgate release and will be available via On Demand, digitally, and in select theaters starting February 19.
Photo: Catherine Kanavy/Lionsgate