Silk Road tells the true story of Ross Ulbricht; the infamous dark web mastermind better known as his online moniker, “Dread Pirate Roberts”. A brash egomaniac with an ultra-libertarian, anti-government philosophy, Ulbricht created the “Silk Road”, an untraceable Amazon-esque marketplace for narcotics and illegal goods on the internet. The film charts his meteoric rise and fall, in tandem with the unhinged DEA agent who initially found him. Silk Road has a choppy, Wikipedia styled narrative that explores the radical extremes of both men. It could have used a more cinematic flow, but is certainly interesting to see.
We first meet Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) at a bar in San Francisco circa 2011. He rails to his best friend (Daniel David Stewart) against the government for restricting personal freedoms. His diatribe catches the attention of the fetching Julia (Alexandra Shipp). She’s impressed by his brash demeanor and ideology. Ulbricht wants to change the world. He truly believes he’s destined for greatness.
Meanwhile in Baltimore, DEA Agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke) is released from drug rehab and psychiatric care. He returns to his wife (Katie Aselton) and young daughter (Lexi Rabe) still suffering from his inner demons. Bowden’s hard-charging, tough personality got him in serious trouble. He’s reassigned from undercover operations to desk duty with the cybercrime division.
Ross Ulbricht despised Jeff Bezos and Amazon, but liked their business model. He, Julia, and their friends were all recreational drug users. He comes up with the ingenious idea of hosting an anonymous narcotics exchange on the Tor network. Buyers and sellers would use cryptocurrency, Bitcoins, to pay for transactions. Ulbricht designs the Silk Road marketplace, and as its popularity soars, brands himself as the “Dread Pirate Roberts” to a legion of global admirers.
The Silk Road website becomes a top priority for the DEA and FBI. But the dark web anonymity shielded “Dread Pirate Roberts” true identity. Rick Bowden, struggling with family issues, makes a bold play. Completely inept at working with computers, he engages an old informant (Darrell Britt-Gibson) to help him navigate the dark web. Setting up a series of events that would lead him and Ross Ulbricht on a collision course.
Silk Road jumps back and forth between Ulbricht and Bowden. The film highlights their aggressive behavior and dangerous need for affirmation. Ulbricht, who had failed in every previous endeavor, was enthralled by the success of the website. He was sticking it to the government while making millions. Bowden couldn’t sit quietly until retirement. He needed to be a part of the action; show the keyboard cops what real law enforcement looks like. Nick Robinson and Jason Clarke play Ulbricht and Bowden as obsessed narcissists. They were willing to cross every line to achieve their goals.
Writer/director Tiller Russell (The Last Rites of Ransom Pride) adapts the film from David Kushner’s Rolling Stone article, “Dead End on Silk Road”. Russell does not believe in smooth editorial transitions. He uses freeze-frames, then hard cuts between the Ulbricht and Bowden storylines. The effect feels jarring, done purposely to add an edge to the pacing. The result is that the film plays out as jumbled chapters. I found it to be a stylistic nuisance that broke up the plot in an unnatural way.
Tiller Russell has a specific viewpoint regarding Ross Ulbricht’s capture and subsequent treatment by the government. I disagree with his assessment and editing choices, but can appreciate the film for summarizing the Silk Road journey. Ross Ulbricht succumbed to criminality and murderous intent, but was indeed a visionary. His exploit of the dark web and use of cryptocurrency did change the world. Audiences unfamiliar with Ulbricht and the Silk Road marketplace will find the film illuminating. Silk Road is a production of Mutressa Movies, Perfect Season Productions, and High Frequency Entertainment. It will be released February 19th theatrically and premium video on demand by Lionsgate.
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