Silk Road – Movie Review – Austin Chronicle
Silk Road, the notorious online drug marketplace, was the brainchild of Ross Ulbricht, who in 2011, launched the site on the Tor network, using bitcoin as currency. It was a completely anonymous way to procure all manner of contraband and an ingenious use of darknet encryption. It was also incredibly profitable (last year, the U.S. seized one billion dollars in cryptocurrency connected to the site), until the FBI took it down and arrested Ulbricht in 2013.
These events have been widely reported online and in Alex Winter’s sympathetic 2015 doc Deep Web, and now we have a drama based on Ulbricht’s rise and fall.
But much like the cavalier way DEA agent Rick Bowden (Clarke) plays fast and loose with the law to take down Ulbricht’s drug empire, writer/director Tiller Russell does the same with the facts in Silk Road, which declares its intention with the opening caveat “This story is true … except for what we made up or changed.” So much for fidelity, but the truth is often too complex and dull, and well, just not cinematic enough.
Two parallel stories then: the hardcore libertarian idealist (are there any other kind?), searching for his life’s calling, who yearns to free society from the shackles of government regulation versus the aforementioned DEA agent, a washed-up dinosaur who majorly fucked up his last assignment by getting a little too close to the cocaine he was tasked to seize. Ulbricht is played by Robinson (Love, Simon; A Teacher), who does exactly two things in this film: He waxes euphoric on Austrian economists and agorism while kicking around Austin, Texas, (hello, Barton Springs!) which then segues into him frantically, obsessively, and endlessly staring at his laptop as he tries to control the free market Frankenstein he has unleashed. Meanwhile, Bowden, fresh from rehab, has been put out to pasture at a desk job in the cyber crime department, and struggles to acquaint himself with the bewildering task of sending an email or the nuances of how a mouse works. He also is trying to repair his relationship with his wife, Sandy (Aselton) and their young daughter, who has a learning disability. Which is as good a time as any to point out that Silk Road is not much interested in its female characters. Sandy spends the film lashing out at her asshole husband when she’s not fretting over getting their daughter into a very expensive school. Ulbricht’s girlfriend, Julia (Shipp) fares no better, repeatedly exclaiming “I’m worried!” only to be told, “You don’t understand this!” Forget it Julia, it’s the dark web; no girls allowed.
Russell’s film is a silly film, inhabited by familiar archetypes; perpetually stoned hackers (there’s two! And both Hauser and Britt-Gibson are the highlights of the movie), dismissive FBI agents, and of course, old-school rogues who lament that they “can’t get shit done the way we used to.” But Silk Road is not without its pleasures – Clarke especially is fun to watch as he gets increasingly cornered with his shakedown shenanigans – just don’t expect the kush; this is strictly schwag.
Silk Road is available on VOD now.
Read our interview with filmmaker Tiller Russell, “Unmasking the Dread Pirate Roberts in Silk Road,” Feb. 19.