Film Review: ‘Silk Road’ (2021)

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Stars: Nick Robinson, Jason Clarke, Alexandra Shipp
Director: Tiller Russell
Distributor: Vertigo Releasing

“I’ve always wanted to change the world.”

From writer-director Tiller Russell comes another film/TV product centering around the former darknet website, Silk Road, imaginatively titled: Silk Road. The story, based on David Kushner’s article within Rolling Stone, sees the rise and fall of its founder, Ross Ulbricht, running parallel with a digital cat and mouse pursuit by a fictitious DEA agent in collaboration with the FBI. 

Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) first appears as the target of an FBI takedown operation in San Francisco, 2013, as the founder of Silk Road – a darknet website offering anonymity to its users in trading illegal goods and services. His story, however, begins three years earlier (as it reads on screen) in Austin, Texas, as an overt Libertarian in pursuit of infamy. As anti-establishment as they come, Ross’ goal is to change the world, change the game, as it were. In launching Silk Road, an A-Z of drugs exists as the primary stock list, using Bitcoin as the currency. The service on offer presents drug dealing in a normalised, legal fashion, even entailing delivery of the drugs via the US Postal Service.   

Further up on the East Coast, Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke) is returning home to his wife and daughter after a duration in rehab for cocaine use. A semi-disgraced DEA agent, his return to the office has literally seen him endure a return to work in an office, but one based in his new unit: cybercrimes. In attempting to take his job seriously, Rick unofficially recruits the services of his former dealer as an informant of sorts, helping him find where to buy drugs on the internet. Hello, Silk Road. 

Silk Road is mildly fascinating in its execution of paralleling the two journeys of its two main characters: Rick is the analog man in a digital world, whereas Ross embraces the full capabilities of a digital world. They, essentially, represent both ends of the spectrum. It is also in this department where Silk Road fails to live up to its own capabilities. Of course, in these stories, we expect a grand build-up which gradually leads to the characters meeting – a familiar trope in action, some of the best and most memorable examples exist in Die Hard and Heat. This special buildup isn’t present in Silk Road. Potentially, the reason for this downfall could be that Ross’ quest lacks any excitement or intensity despite the severe actions taking place. The wto charcters do eventually meet face-to-face, but it is painfully lacklustre. Surprisingly, despite Ross’ abnormally large financial growth and power, importantly, there is no glorification or glamorisation of his actions, the opposite to what we see in Scarface.  

Not only are the characteristics a clash of technical abilities, but they’re a clash of ideologies too, and how they lose grips on reality. As mentioned, at the earliest story event, Ross exists as a hardcore Libertarian. Rick, an older character, represents the establishment and old guard in despise of their Millennial replacements and superiors. The transcendence to Millennial ideologies in the workplace forces further aggression in Rick – he hates change, whilst Ross is trying to enforce change, though, illegally. The flaw in Ross is that in his pursuit of his destiny, his morals and actions begin to transcend to the dark side. Not only is he conducting despicable crimes, he’s enabling them too through Silk Road. One notion of Ross’ moral corruption comes in the form of ordering the punishment of an individual within his organisation, who he sought to be a traitor, thus exemplifying what is essentially a dystopian action within what we assume to be a Libertarian mindset. Is this Tiller Russell composing a commentary that money and power can corrupt Libertarians? Rick, on the other hand, sucuumbs to his obssession of catching the crook, which mirrors his drug addiction, and entails brutality.

Ultimately, Silk Road  poses more interest as a character study than it does a crime thriller. Throughout, an ambiance exists which suggests that the audience of this film is knowledgeable of the dark web, Bitcoin, Silk Road, Gawker etc. – Rick’s ignorance towards technology, used for comedic effect, implements this. Adding to the comedic tone, Rick’s dialogue during his DEA work is often of a comical nature, slightly reminiscent to that of Clint Eastwood’s law enforcement roles. Overall, instead of establishing intense excitement in the heat of the crime, Silk Road chooses to present two characters, with opposing lifestyles and ideologies, neither of whom do you aspire to be.

Silk Road is available now on digital platforms. Many thanks to Witchfinder and Vertigo Releasing for the pleasure of this film

3 Stars


For John.

This article’s featured image: By Source, Vertigo Releasing, Fair Use 

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