The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Digital] - SILK ROAD | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Digital] - SILK ROAD

silk road review
A dramatisation of the events leading to the arrest of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbrecht.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Tiller Russell

Starring: Nick Robinson, Jason Clarke, Alexandra Shipp, Katie Aselton, Jimmi Simpson, Paul Walter Hauser

silk road poster

Operating between 2011 and 2013, 'Silk Road' was an online marketplace for illegal goods, predominantly drugs, with over 100,000 estimated customers over its short lifespan. As its opening disclaimer informs us, director Tiller Russell's Silk Road is a heavily dramatised recap of the events around the site's founding and eventual arrest of its founder, Ross Ulbrecht.

silk road review

Ulbrecht (Nick Robinson) is portrayed as a cocky kid with an anti-authoritarian streak. Having failed at various career ventures, he stumbles upon the brainwave of an "Amazon for drugs" where buyers can anonymously make purchases using bitcoin. Thanks to publicity from the website Gawker, the site, which he christens 'Silk Road', becomes a phenomenon.

Of course, this quickly attracts the attention of the DEA and FBI. In reality, a pair of DEA agents were found to have been exploiting their investigation of Ulbrecht for their own personal gain. In Russell's version of events, these two figures are combined into the burly persona of disgraced narc turned desk jockey Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke). After botching an undercover sting and spending time in rehab with addiction issues, the veteran Bowden is relocated to the cyber crimes unit, where his 26-year-old boss (Will Ropp) shuts him into a corner office, hoping he'll twiddle his thumbs and keep out of his hair. Despite being a complete luddite, Bowden stumbles across Silk Road, and with the aid of a streetwise informant (Darrell Britt-Gibson), sets up a fake online persona to take down Ulbrecht.

silk road review

Silk Road suffers from two glaring issues. Firstly, thrillers involving online crime are rarely exciting. No matter how much you gussy it up, there's nothing thrilling about watching someone writing code or characters sending text messages back and forth. Ulbrecht is a particularly uninteresting antagonist, spending most of his time hunched over a laptop. Despite the money rolling into his bank account, he never seems to be enjoying the fruits of his labour and we never see how his life has improved through his business venture. The movie opens with a flash-forward to Ulbrecht's arrest, and the presence of an armed SWAT unit is laughable given how unthreatening a presence Ulbrecht is.

Then there's the problem of whom we're supposed to root for here. It's impossible to empathise with either Ulbrecht or Bowden, and so the film finds itself caught between two stools. No mainstream American movie is going to posit what is essentially a drug dealer as its hero or even anti-hero, but at the same time the days of an audience blindly taking the side of a law enforcement figure have long since passed. With two leads that we can't invest in, we're left to simply watch the story unspool with little in the way of emotional engagement.

silk road review

Russell clearly wants to deliver a film that's part Goodfellas, part The Social Network, but it lacks the edgy energy of the former and the Sorkinese patter of the latter. The real life Ulbrecht is clearly a highly intelligent individual, but Russell's bland script makes him seem like a dumb jock who just stumbled across the internet. Robinson's Ulbrecht speaks in reductive soundbites, and his conscience is reflected awkwardly in his interactions with his disapproving girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp). Similarly, Bowden's wife (Katie Aselton) functions as a moral scold, the classic cliché of the wife forcing her career-driven husband to choose between his job and his family.

As dumbed-down as the narrative is here, I still found myself scratching my head regarding the logistics of Ulbrecht's operation. If, like me, you're unfamiliar with the workings of this sort of venture, you'll find yourself hitting Google as soon as the credits roll to fill in the blanks.

Silk Road
 is on UK/ROI Digital from March 22nd.

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