Synopsis: Young, idealistic, and driven to succeed, Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) creates Silk Road, the internet’s first unregulated marketplace. When the site becomes a multimillion-dollar pipeline for illicit drugs, Ulbricht draws the attention of Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), a dangerously unpredictable DEA agent who uses any means necessary to take him down. Loosely based on a true story.
A tale of trafficking and conspiracy set amidst the internet’s evolving landscape, Silk Road possesses the foundation of a zeitgeist deep-dive into tech’s elusive moral quandaries. Writer/director Tiller Russell may have a pertinent nucleus on his hands, but his semi-engaging effort mostly snags on familiar rise-and-fall devices.
Similar to its bluntly-formed title, Silk Road settles for a relatively brainless yarn despite its thematic potential. There’s a myriad of ruminations Russell’s story could touch on, whether that be the ethical concerns within our regulated internet or the innate danger of Ross’ free-market website. Russell decides to blend these conceits into one relatively shallow concoction, dancing through ideals with on-the-nose news segments and sanctimonious speeches (the inclusion of narration spells out Ross’ motivations with a lack of tactfulness).
It’s disheartening to see a singular and complex story reduced to middling cat-and-mouse fare. The mirrored narratives are connected through the characters’ obsessive pursuit of their goals, yet Russell completely forgets about establishing motivations in the process. Rick serves as a generic hard-nosed cop, while Ross bores as an empty dreamer unbeknownst to his action’s grander ramifications. Both figures are more reminiscent of thinly-established stereotypes than actually evolving people.
The inherent shallowness isn’t helped much by Russell’s tame visceral voice, lacking the kind of tense vibrancy to compensate for the material’s weaknesses. He does a competent-enough job pushing the pace forward while evenly balancing his dual storylines. That mere competency doesn’t overshadow the fairly dull visual techniques. Outside of a few techno-score drops and some bizarrely implemented editing choices (the constant freeze-frame transitions add little of note), there’s little to differentiate this effort from your typical cyber-thriller.
Silk Road would be a sinking ship without its anchoring cast. Jason Clarke continues his run as one of the industry’s more unappreciated character actors, sinking his teeth into Rick’s gruff persona with conviction and a few slyly humorous beats (Rick’s slow acclimation to the internet leads to some colorful moments of frustration). Nick Robinson also bolsters Ross’ thin arch with twitchy energy and a few understated emotional beats.
Silk Road is the movie equivalent of a Wikipedia entry. Its fast-paced narrative will feed you some basic information, but the lack of substantive shading will leave most viewers wanting more.
Silk Road is on digital platforms 22 March from Vertigo Releasing
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