Silk Road sees documentarian Tiller Russell venture into dramatic fare with a story that should be right up his alley. Yet by altering this true story, some of the emphasis is lost. Saddled with underwritten characters, hindering itself from the get-go.
Young, idealistic, and driven to succeed, Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) creates the internet’s first unregulated marketplace: Silk Road. But when it becomes a multimillion-dollar pipeline for illicit drugs, Ross is set on a collision course with Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), a disreputable and dangerously unpredictable DEA agent, who will use any means necessary to take him down.
Silk Road follows the well-meaning beginnings of the dark web website Silk Road, all the way to its eventual demise. The film doesn’t hide the fact that this will not end well for its creator Ross Ulbricht as we open his paranoid body, wander to a library to access the website. Unknowing that the FBI are about to bring his world crashing down on him.
When we find DEA agent Rick Bowden, he is just released from a psychiatric ward on his way back to his family. This old-style agent isn’t wanted by his team anymore. With his career on a knife-edge, he is shipped off the cybercrime unit. Sadly for him and his new unit, he has no computer experience (a rather amusing scene of him learning how to click a mouse and send emails ensues). His methods are out of date, cost too much in resources. So when he falls into the case of Ulbricht, he is halted at every turn. Not one to take it lying down, he endeavours to get his man, even if it means using his less than acceptable methods.
Almost all of the film’s empathy is directed to Bowden, and even then, it is rather forced. Bowden is stuck between a rock and a hard place by introducing the issues with his daughter and the need for more money to fund those needs. His pension will never cover what he needs it to when he is finished on the force, and luckily or unluckily for him, there is a new way to get what he needs.
This heavy-handed presentation takes away from the film’s overall scope as this should be about Ulbricht losing sight of Silk Road and hints of Bowden getting caught up in it. When the sympathetic (all female characters, by the way) try to deter the men from the road they are taken, they are hushed and, in Julia’s (Alexandra Shipp) case, removed entirely as Ulbricht realises this road should not have romantic distractions. These subplots help create more rounded characters, yet they fall flat, especially in Julia’s case. We never see that spark in their relationship to feel towards her thanks to underwritten she is. Bringing the strain into their relationships never connects how it should as we are given but glimpses into their world and their version of events. For that to work better, they needed filler arcs.
Silk Roads biggest sin is in having one of the leads lack the charisma needed. Apart from his first meeting with Julia, Ulbricht is a hard character to care for and seeing as we see him fight with wanting to close the website and the deaths and damage the Silk Road later does on people around the world, we feel almost nothing for him. This frustration echoes throughout the rest of the film as we see him lose his way and distance himself from everyone. This frustration is that Robinson actually plays the character well; he is just written so thinly that it feels as if he is second-guessing every move.
Clarke, on the other hand, seems to be having a whale of a time as Bowden. A character that is so much more fleshed out that although you can’t truly ever relate to him due to his nature and comments to, well, everyone. But you can feel a connection with him. He is a dinosaur, waiting to be put out for retirement, but he feels as if he can still contribute, even in this new unknowing department. Regret also fills his character. Be it from his previous actions on other cases to put him where he is now or that he felt he had to make these decisions.
Having two unlikeable leads causes a bit of a conflict with your enjoyment of Silk Road, yet you want to watch it until the end despite the underwritten characters. This has to be thanks to Tiller Russell’s direction. He can weave a strong story thanks to his background in documentaries, but when the characters have something lacking, he struggles to bring that oomph to them to compel us.
This continual engagement tries to hide the fact that this is a rather dull affair for a crime thriller that never tries to raise the heart rate or the risks for anyone involved. We know Ulbricht is either going to be caught or about to from the first few minutes, so what should be the trick to keep us hooked. It causes the audience to twiddle their thumbs far more than grip the sides of their chair. What should be a riveting film loses itself, as if it is trying far too hard.
There is also a lot of information missing from Silk Road that you wonder how and why a documentarian such as Russell excluded them. Especially in lieu of what is included, as a starter into the story of Ulbricht, it is solid, but there is obviously more in this story that needs to be told. Just why it wasn’t told here will remain a mystery.
Vertigo Releasing presents Silk Road on digital platforms 22 March 2021
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