‘Silk Road’ Fails To Get High on Its True Story of Cyber Drug Trafficking

There is an endlessly fascinating story buried somewhere in “Silk Road.” Ross Ulbricht is like the misfit version of Mark Zuckerberg. While other innovators marked the aughts and 2010s with the emergence of social media as a tool for connections and dating, Ulbricht decided he would strike a blow for freedom by inventing a cyber marketplace to sell drugs. As depicted in this film by Tiller Russell, Ulbricht was some kind of self-styled libertarian, a Ron Paul with a laptop who went to jail for becoming a hipster narco. This could indeed have been a wild, fascinating tale. But in Russell’s hands it becomes an oddly edited, confused little drama about old timer cops and obnoxious kids.

We first meet Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) as a sharp college student in Austin, Texas. It’s the Obama years and he and his friends talk about the emerging possibilities of internet markets. Like many movie geniuses, Ulbricht is easily bored by going to class. He prefers to soak in the ideas of Friedrich Hayek and the Austrian School of Economics on his own and conclude that cyberspace can be used to wither away the masses from the state. His version of doing it is by creating an Amazon for drug running. Dubbing it the Silk Road, Ulbricht spends all day and night, to the detriment of girlfriend Julia (Alexandra Shipp), turning his creation into a revolutionary marketplace for narcotics. Using Bitcoin as the currency, the idea is you can order your meth or coke, maybe shrooms for the more casual user, and it arrives at the door through the mail. This is of course highly illegal. On the other side of the law, narcotics agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke) begins to sniff around Silk Road even as he struggles to master his laptop.

It would be fascinating to get the chance to be a fly on the wall of the set of “Silk Road,” just to overhear how certain production decisions were made. Russell has mostly worked in documentaries, including the recent “Night Stalker” on Netflix, which was an effectively disturbing chronicle of serial killer Richard Ramirez. The director puts much less work on Ulbricht or even Bowden. Part of the problem seems to be that he doesn’t have a clear angle on this material. Ulbricht as a character lacks the fascination of David Fincher’s take on Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” the obvious precursor of this movie. There’s nothing to the kid except that he spews obnoxious libertarian rhetoric in every scene about defying the state and endlessly looks twitchy while typing away. But what actually drives him towards making an internet market for drugs? Unlike Zuckerberg or Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs,” Ulbricht is a blank slate. He’s not intriguing as a radical either, because never does he seem to ponder the wider implications of his project. 

Does Russell consider Ulbricht a hero or villain? Fool or visionary? It’s never clear because the very structure of the movie is muddled and odd. He’s trying to balance the story of Ulbricht with a cliché downtrodden cop narrative involving Bowden, who is in the dog house for blowing his fuse during a bust in Puerto Rico. He’s the old timer who believes in old fashioned cop work, meaning the usual stake outs and beating up of suspects. The younger cops scoff and mock his style. Bowden’s wife is weary of his obsessive ways and inevitably he misses important meetings to try and get their daughter into a good school. And yes, he was once a drinker. One reason Bowden is so cliché is because he isn’t even real. Russell has crafted him as a composite of various D.E.A. agents who were on the hunt for Ulbricht. There’s some decent comic relief from Rayford (Darrell Britt-Gibson), a street hustler Bowden uses as an informant, who teaches him how Bitcoin works. Paul Walter Hauser gives the film’s best performance as Curtis, a goofy online trafficker who becomes Ulbricht’s associate. 

Bowden’s character becomes the more intriguing one because he has complexities and stakes. Ulbricht and the other college-age characters function as tools to say, “oh look, someone made a movie about that Silk Road guy.” Russell’s visual style is worthy of the Hallmark channel and the editing has some curious choices, like random freeze frames that seem to have no purpose. Even stranger is how none of it feels natural or even plausible. Julia knows from the get-go what Ulbricht’s project is all about but it takes her well into the third act to suddenly realize selling hard drugs might weigh on her conscience. In the film’s most hilariously structured scene Ulbricht goes to a friend’s party, pounds drinks and decides to order a hit job on a potential snitch, all because he sees Julia laughing with another guy. So much for libertarian values. The dialogue has terrible film student cadence (“Ross, it’s just a website!”). Equally disappointing is the lack of any insight into how any of Ulbricht’s skills work. In “The Social Network” one gets a sense of the effort put into making a site, writing code, organizing a new enterprise, etc. The story of Silk Road would require just as much fascinating detail, especially since what Ulbricht was up to depended on stealth. This could have been a “Blow” version of Edward Snowden or Julian Assange. Imagine the makers of “Mr. Robot” tackling this story.

With much promise but no delivery, “Silk Road” never gets high on its own supply. Instead it may just rank with those recent, terrible adaptations of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” as examples of libertarians making subjects for bad movies. Ross Ulbricht is now serving a life sentence in a Tucson, AZ jail. The final shot of the film sees him walking in single file with other, orange-clad prisoners. Once again his neo-revolutionary voiceover fills the soundtrack. But it’s hard to take any of it seriously when the movie itself refuses to. As some news clips in the movie show, Silk Road immediately rang alarm bells for what it could mean in our age of internet markets. Instead of looking for a dealer, just put their item in your shopping cart. Such ideas have a natural air of danger, this movie has none. 

Silk Road” releases Feb. 19 on VOD and select cities.