Review: Silk Road

Writer-director Tiller Russell’s highly dramatized recreation of the rise and fall of the darknet website Silkroad.com takes a novel approach to the classic protagonist-antagonist dynamic in that the two main characters are really antagonists. In fact, it’s safe to call both Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson), the 20-something cyber genius libertarian creator of the website, and Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), the seriously limited DEA agent who tries to bring Ulbricht down, assholes, since they tend to treat loved ones and confidantes like shit and decide early on that they’re special enough to be above the law in their respective ways.

Ulbricht’s idea is pretty simple, and immensely profitable in 2013. Create a space on the alternative web where people can buy and sell anything they want, though what makes him insanely rich is drugs, which can be delivered anywhere, including postal boxes, and remain undetected since the payment is in cyber-currency. The idea as presented, however, doesn’t interest Ulbricht because of the money he can make, but rather due to the fact that it completely sidesteps the authorities, which is kind of his life’s work. Ulbricht’s adventures in cyberspace are conveyed in parallel with Bowden’s saga, which starts with his release from a psychiatric facility in Baltimore where he was treated for addiction. He’s welcomed back into the agency but given a desk job in cybercrimes, an area he not only knows nothing about, but for which he has no affinity since he barely knows how to send a fax. 

What unites the two men is their obsessiveness, and while Russell does a fair job of showing how their parallel trajectories eventually come together, while charting those trajectories he needs to maintain a kind of dramatic tension that’s difficult to do when the crimes in question are taking place in the ether. So he gooses the story with, on Bowden’s part, a sub-tale about his estranged daughter’s difficulties in getting into a good school (which require more money than he makes); and on Ulbricht’s part, the notion that SilkRoad.com is growing beyond his control. For sure, the latter story is more interesting and the reason the movie was made in the first place, but for some reason Russell privileges Bowden’s, and the movie sputters as a result. As a movie about wannabe alpha males pissing all over themselves, Silk Road delivers a certain edgy Schadenfreude, but if you want to learn about the actual affair, you’ll have to read a book. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shibuya Human Trust Cinema (03-5468-5551).

Silk Road home page in Japanese

photo (c) Silk Road Movie, LLC

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