Film Review: Silk Road


Tiller Russell


Nick Robinson, Jason Clarke, Alexandra Shipp, Jimmi Simpson, Paul Walter Hauser, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Katie Aselton, Lexi Rabe, Daniel David Stewart and Will Ropp


Philosophical twenty-something Ross Ulbricht creates Silk Road, a dark net website that sells drugs, while DEA agent Rick Bowden goes undercover to bring him down.

The true story of Ross Ulbricht, the charismatic young tech-mastermind who unleashed the darknet website Silk Road, and the corrupt DEA agent determined to bring down his billion-dollar empire.

Silk Road is a crime thriller based on David Kushner’s The Rolling Stone article, Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall. Young, idealistic, and driven to succeed, Ross Ulbricht 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, a disreputable and dangerously unpredictable DEA agent, who will use any means necessary to take him down.

According to IMDb this is director Tiller Russell’s first dramatic feature that’s not a documentary in a decade (2010’s The Last Rites of Ransom Pride), though audiences will have recently seen his work, as Tiller directed the Netflix limited series Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer. On paper, having someone of Tiller Russell’s experience of developing documentary features at hand to adapt a film adaptation of a true story, should make for a compelling drama but in actually Silk Road provides some mixed results. For one, Russell’s script tries the balance the film on the journey’s of Ross Ulbricht and DEA Agent Rick Bowden. Ross is a figure who philosophies about American freedom and liberty, and believes that creating Silk Road to not only highlight that his ideals are ones that modern society should follow, but also show that the war on drugs is a farce…it also helps that it provides him quick money in the process. Rick Bowden is a combination of two agents that were connected to the investigation in real-life. Rick comes out of rehab due to addiction to drugs and alcohol during an undercover operation and is reassigned to a desk job at the cyber crimes division, where the captain there doesn’t want him and tells him straight that the brass pretty much want him to do nothing that he could jeopardise and just count down the days till retirement. Unfortunately the balance overall is tilted in favour of Rick Bowden as we are at least meant to sympathise with the character as he tries to adapt to learning how to use computers and when he learns the cost of tuition to send his daughter to a school that caters to her learning disability, he tries to swindle the cash as well as make his voice heard in a workplace that belittles him at every opportunity, even though he’s putting in the work to oust Ross’ operation.

Unfortunately in terms of following Ross’ journey, the majority of it has the character looking at a screen, becoming obsessed with Silk Road expanding that it feels like we miss a few scenes of buildup as when his friend or girlfriend bring up a new item that he sells through the site, such as crystal meth and eventually guns, it just feels like it comes from left-field. On the performances, Nick Robinson did the best with what he could as Ross Ulbricht, particularly in the latter half of the film when as we see how far he’s willing to go to keep the Silk Road in operation, but Jason Clarke oddly enough has the meatier role as Rick Bowden and gives a solid performance as the character, and his dynamic and chemistry alongside Darrell Britt-Gibson as Rick’s informant Rayford provides some of the best scenes in the film for me. Paul Walter Hauser plays the kind of role you’d expect from him as Curtis Clark Green, also known as @chronicpain on Silk Road who starts to work for Ross and his scenes provide the most comic relief amongst the stories details of how Tor and Bitcoin work. Alexandra Shipp unfortunately given nothing really to do here on paper other than to feel alienated and try to pull Ross from drowning, as it were, but it comes across as a sudden character change as she goes from willing to being an accomplice in Ross’ creation to believing it’s gone on for too long and too far. Daniel David Stewart also feels pushed aside after the first act as Ross’ friend Max, and while I’m a fan of Jimmi Simpson, he isn’t given much to do here either as Chris Talbert. There is some editing choices that I wasn’t a fan of, particularly the use of freeze frames to fade outs, which feel misplaced and overused. All this adaptation has done is made me feel the need to seek out the 2015 documentary Deep Web to make a comparison between the two.


A dramatic feature of the true story about Silk Road and Ross Ulbricht does make for compelling viewing on paper, but it doesn’t really gel in execution here.