Several aspects read as off-key between the real story of Ross Ulbricht and Silk Road’s movie adaptation. Don’t get me wrong. Filmmakers grab two crude tools for dramatic license all the time. They pick a blade of choice, anything between a guillotine or a scalpel, for whatever is the desired severity or precision. They also pick a mechanism for inflation, which can range from a bulbous hand pump to whatever engine fills a hot-air balloon, because movie’s need entertainment value that floats.
When you read the source material coming from David Kushner’s 2014 long-form piece from Rolling Stone and then watch the movie, the character traits and tonal choices just don’t fit. Silk Road has an astounding and blistering story to tell that seems mishandled by those two filmmaker tools for dramatic effect. We too easily see the chopped scars from a machete and the lift of a weakly deflated Thanksgiving Day parade balloon from something that could have been as sharp and heady as The Social Network.
Silk Road is the origin and fall of what the future federal judge would call the “most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the internet.” For the uninformed, Ross Ulbricht was merely 27 when he found the movie’s titular darknet shopping hub. For two-and-a-half years of encrypted operations and Bitcoin-fueled fortunes, more than 100,000 customers logged over a million transactions on Silk Road that amassed over $1 billion in revenues and netted $420 million of commissions. By 2015, Ulbricht would be pinched on money laundering, computer hacking, and two conspiracy charges and slammed with a double life sentence plus forty years without the chance of parole. Take about throwing the proverbial book at a guy.
It takes a smart and twisted cookie to exploit our convenience culture to pull this off. Kushner’s piece describes the flaming Libertarian Ross Ulbricht as “grandiose as he was cold-blooded, championing freedom while ordering hits on those who crossed him.” He would further detail Ross as “one who, with seeming ease and lack of conscience, nonchalantly ordered murders for hire amidst fixing server bugs and answering customer-support tickets.” You would think the actor portraying a figure like that for a movie treatment would need to be one compelling slickster.
To watch Love, Simon star Nick Johnson embody Ulbricht, also known by the Princess Bride-inspired handle “Dread Pirate Roberts,” and hear him read the voiceover monologue diary in telling this sordid tale, you get about half of that impression and a heaping dose of the Hollywood trope of a romanticized bandit. The cocky young charm and intriguing pull is there in Johnson. However, the first sign of trouble for this lukewarm thriller from writer-director Tiller Russell (Chicago P.D., Chicago Fire) becomes the dramatic inflation.
Many of Johnson’s opening “I want to change the world” and “I did something to help people” lines hit the required cheesy marks for giving enough rosy blush for audiences to take his Robin Hood-ish side before the eventual fall from grace. Still, they too often dumb down the man’s stiffer motivations and paraphrase the real-life figure’s quotes of “what seemed to be insurmountable barriers between the world today and the world I wanted” and “every action you take outside the scope of government control strengthens the market and weakens the state.” There’s strong commentary possible that is entirely glazed over for showy internet minutia. Tack on disapproving parents of privilege and throw in a mostly meaningless love interest (Alexandra Shipp of Endless) and any possible icy hardness is melted away.
Where Russell and Silk Road really fail the most is in chronicling and characterizing the wrecking ball swung for Ulbricht’s historical undoing. To flip the famous quote, “a villain is only as good as his hero.” That person too better be one equally compelling slickster. Well, the movie pits, essentially, the smartest, most cunning, and most connected guy in any room against a cowboy caveman, breaking ranks from his commanding suits, and sets it up where the dimwit tough guy going solo dominates and wins, something far from the Kushner facts. Go ahead and deflate the whole balloon of exciting stakes.
A top-billed Jason Clarke plays the composite character Rick Bowden, a former coked-out DEA agent coming out of rehab and demoted to cybercrimes to play out his string to pension. He’s an imposing old school door-kicker who can barely turn on a computer and stands as an aging and useless dead weight for his Millennial boss (Will Ropp of The Way Back) and task force commander (TV vet Jimmi Simpson). Putting legbreaker-style pressure on his former street informant Rayford (Darrell Britt-Gibson of Judas and the Black Messiah), Bowden teaches himself to become a Silk Road user and Bitcoin customer with high ideas that he can infiltrate and bust the entire ring while pocketed some money himself.
This movie is missing the bigger picture. There was wide open acreage for a movie like Silk Road to cut deep with the implications of a failed war on drugs and the powerful grips of liberty and anonymity sought by the internet communities. Rather than dive into such wide-ranging details, Silk Road hides the full scope away and turns the authorities of a constricting multi-agency government investigation into lucky boobs. By the time Bowden is single-handedly taking down one of Ulbricht’s underbosses (played by Richard Jewell’s Paul Walter Hauser) and using him to force the hand of contract killing out of the dot.com mogul, it all just mudslides to farce instead of heightened fear, maddening obsession, and true paranoia.
To hear Rayford’s character call out Bowden as the “walking cliche” of a “white man buying drugs from a n—- in the hood” might as well be damning confirmation for the whole movie, thanks to this horribly mismatched and oafish proxy representing the law coming down on Ross. Clarke’s entire character arc in Silk Road, complete with a deadbeat dad component latched to a suffering wife (Kate Asleton) and naive young daughter (Lexi Rabe from Avengers: Endgame) at home, steals oxygen, believability, and credit from the whole story the same way Mark Wahlberg’s impenetrable and do-it-all hero did in Peter Berg’s Patriot Day.
Shave Clarke out or make him part of a team and the movie gets far tighter. The extent of Robinson’s acting is looking dramatically at and away from a computer screen. Likewise, the extent of Clarke’s acting is strong-arming everyone around him and doddering like a dinosaur. Along the way, Shipp, Britt-Gibson, Ropp, and Hauser are composed as thin by-standers. Enable a capable ensemble to tell a capable ensemble effort. Spread the wealth, multiply the tension, and increase the impact. There are movie-making formulas for that better than brains reduced to frazzle versus brawn granted dumb luck. The Ulbricht story is a dynamite premise scrambled to bits by Silk Road with too much wasted talent.