Written and directed by Tiller Russell, philosophical twenty-something Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) creates Silk Road, a dark net website that sells drugs, while DEA agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke) goes undercover to bring him down. Also starring: Jimmi Simpson, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Alexandra Shipp, Katie Aselton, Daniel David Stewart and Paul Walter Hauser.
There’s no denying that Ross Ulbricht’s story is one of great interest; how he so swiftly creates a vast, anonymous empire but the real question is whether Russell can capitalise on that. As it turns out, he can’t; the style heavily feels like it’s trying to create a criminal version of The Social Network but what it puts together is much more akin to The Circle. It’s pushing a very stylish, slick atmosphere but it doesn’t have the skills or intrigue to pull it off. It begins on a rather abrupt note moving back and forth from thriller to drama and makes a messy first impression. It comes across more simply as trying too hard, attempting to force a significant, impressive tone rather than letting it naturally arise from its story.
However, it’s the writing that’s more problematic here. Its dialogue is disappointingly stereotypical, what it’s trying to achieve is utterly transparent. It builds a very cliched story of millennial versus boomer and it’s an angle that should really stay in social media spats rather than in film. Instead what it does is drown out the more substantial and interesting facets that the story has to offer and prevents the inherent tension from taking hold. The pace itself does move well but it doesn’t have enough to offer to make for satisfying viewing, it ultimately leaves the potential of its story mostly unfulfilled.
The performances can only go so far when the writing is holding them back but the whole cast does still manage to relatively hold their own. Nick Robinson really taps into the physical and moral breakdown of Ross as he gets in deeper than he can handle. The way that the story is structures unfortunately takes a lot of focus away from his character and stops him from really letting loose and driving this performance home. Clarke feels like he’s very much in his element within a role that he could realistically do in his sleep. Shipp was well casted but underused, she could have had much more to add, the same goes for Walter-Hauser. Britt-Gibson however does add a great touch of energy and personality to the story, giving it a little levity from taking itself too seriously.
Silk Road is sadly trying too hard to be something that it simply isn’t. It’s so focused on creating a slick style that it ends up with little and forgets to give its story some teeth. It hits a lot of stereotypical notes in its writing which sadly undermines the performances. Russell had the right intention, true crime stories never go out of fashion but he lacked the skills to fulfil its potential.