The United States’ war on drugs has been a farce for decades and for numerous reasons, but stories from the world of illegal narcotics and the government’s attempts to interrupt it are often compelling all the same. The best find the characters behind the grit, glamour, and gory carnage of it all, and whether they’re based on real people or not it’s those characters take hold of our focus and don’t let go. Silk Road explores a real and fascinating true story involving the dark web, the misguided ambitions of youth, and the heavy weight of consequence. It’s also the dullest possible version of that story.
Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) is a twentysomething libertarian in Austin, Texas, and after bedding a young woman named Julia (Alexandra Shipp, doing good work with a thankless role) by ranting about the Affordable Care Act (as you do) the pair become inseparable. Their budding relationship is interrupted by a third party, though, when Ross comes up with an idea destined to take over his life — an eBay-like site on the dark web promising a marketplace where drugs can be bought, sold, and shipped with complete anonymity. The site, eventually named Silk Road, quickly becomes a success sending discrete packages of drugs around the world and making Ross a wealthy young man.
Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke) is a man far removed from Silk Road but intimately connected to its content. As a disgraced DEA agent still smarting from past troubles and behaviors, he’s given a desk with the Cyber Crimes division to ride out his remaining months before retirement. It’s a brave new world for him — hijinks involving an old man struggling with email make up his early scenes — but his old-school (read blunt and borderline illegal) approach soon lands him on the trail of Silk Road. It also sees him cross lines involving violence and theft for his own personal reasons.
Silk Road is as much the story of these two men as it is an exploration of the creation, rise, and fall of this illegal marketplace. Of course, that’s to say that the film stumbles evenly with its big story and the characters within. Writer/director Tiller Russell, adapting David Kushner‘s 2014 Rolling Stone article, delivers the high-stakes tale with all the energy and style of a ’90s made-for-television movie. The film’s attempt at balancing its two antiheroes leaves neither seeming all that compelling, and it only worsens as the film tilts more of its effort towards the corrupt federal agent.
Bowden, a fictional mash-up of at least two real law enforcement agents, uses the Dirty Harry approach with his informant and suspects alike and loses his already tenuous moral high ground by turning towards extortion and theft. His motivation, a throwaway bit involving his daughter’s tuition, reveals him to be a man whose heart is in the right place even if his brain is missing in action, but he’s a character we’ve seen numerous times before. Clarke’s performance makes him just engaging enough as he rams his way through every scene like a movie cop on holiday from the 70s, but that makes him no less familiar.
Ulbricht, by contrast, is a very real person and arguably far more interesting. Well, he should be anyway as a young man whose own interest in drugs is merely casual — but whose interest in a truly free market being able to avoid federal regulations shapes his choices. Like a less obnoxious Mark Zuckerberg, Ulbricht turns a simple idea into an online phenomenon, but while David Fincher’s The Social Network explores the process in glorious detail so much of Ulbricht’s journey in Silk Road is skipped over all together. The site is up and running in finished form mere moments after he first mentions it to friends, and the more interesting elements of its creation and daily processes are glossed over in favor of far more mundane beats.
A quick write-up in Gawker later and he’s a millionaire, but all we see of him is boiled down to a young man obsessed with his site’s success who quickly turns paranoid about those around him. The story shifts to involve attempted murder-for-hire plots and a quickly forgotten conceit regarding guilt, but the weight of those decisions is absent from the screen and Robinson’s performance. It’s difficult to blame the actor as the script, again and again, returns to a worried and nervous Ulbricht staring at a laptop screen, but he’s unable to lift the young man’s concerns beyond a furrowed brow.
Both Ulbricht and Bowden are men obsessed with doing what they see as the right thing despite being more truthfully motivated by simple greed. Neither feels much in the way of regret regarding the lines they cross. And while they’re technically on opposite sides of the law, the film’s attempt to frame them like so many cop/villain pairings in cinema amounts to nothing of note. Silk Road views both with the same casual respect even as it leans heavier towards Bowden with some third act dialogue choices involving lazy millennials paling beside the hard work of their elders.
Silk Road is just so endlessly dull despite its topic, characters, and attempt at injecting suspense via an in medias res opening. Highlights are few and far between, but surprising exactly no one, the great Paul Walter Hauser is one of them with a too-brief turn as a ferret-loving drug dealer entrusted by Ulbricht before becoming the young man’s target. It’s telling that Hauser’s character, despite having far less screen time, is the far more interesting player in all of this. A stronger film would relish such detours, but in Silk Road it’s the exception to the rule.