Silk Road Review: Jason Clarke’s Performance Is Nuanced In Lackluster Film

Silk Road, based on a true story — “except for what [the filmmakers] made up or changed” — and adapted from the Rolling Stone article by David Kushner, opens with a great set-up. Drug lord Ross Ulbricht is a libertarian who wants to change the world and believes that the people gaining control and easy access to an assortment of drugs is the best way to start “taking back our liberty.” Of course, anyone who is well-versed in the story knows how that turns out for him and the film ultimately follows in that same path. From writer-director Tiller Russell, Silk Road has the makings of a gripping thriller, but it surprisingly lacks the tension required for it to work.

Ross (Nick Robinson) has all these fancy ideas about changing the world, relying on the old humdrum arguments about America having lost its “compass.” To allow society to take back some control from the government, Ross starts a dark-web service that he describes as “Amazon for drugs.” Sellers can post their drugs of choice, including meth, and buyers could purchase and rate the seller following the transaction. The drugs would then be delivered via mail. It’s all very convenient and incredibly illegal despite whatever intentions Ross has for the site, aptly called “Silk Road,” with Ross fashioning himself the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride. Naturally, his business draws the attention of Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), a DEA agent who’s previously been in rehab and sentenced to prison for stealing bitcoin. Bowden, a character fabricated for the purposes of this film, isn’t about to let Ross pull one over on him, and so begins a tense online exchange between him and the edge lord.    

Silk Road barely scratches the surface of Ross’ motivations. He was never really interested in changing the world to make it better and a lot of what he did was more self-serving than anything. There are glimpses into Ross’ personal life that suggest he’s trying to make a mark on the world to gain his father’s acceptance, to be seen by him perhaps. The film, however, isn’t very interested in delving into any of that. Even when Julia (Alexandra Shipp) makes mention of his website profiting off of the poor and addicts, a declaration that is maybe meant to stir up some semblance of guilt in Ross, it falls flat because the film doesn’t engage with the argument at all. 

It’s as though the film lingers at the edge, but refuses to dive deeper into the effects of Ross’ actions. The film could have been an engaging drama that flirts with the morality of its characters, but winds up too immersed in the back-and-forth between Ross and Rick to fully explore anything else. So much so that Silk Road often feels misguided in its execution. To be sure, the story is based on a fascinating true event and that, by all accounts, should make for an interesting movie. However, the film isn’t invested in a proper buildup and falls short of escalating and encapsulating the intensity and tension of Ross’ rise and fall as a dark-web drug lord.

The film is bolstered by a particularly strong performance by Clarke, whose Rick is portrayed as a sympathetic character, a man who has made a lot of mistakes in the past, but is ultimately trying to be there for his family. Clarke gives a nuanced performance, elevating Rick as the stronger character in a story that he is not originally a part of. On the other hand, there is Robinson, who is a generally good actor, but is ill-equipped to offer more than a surface-level reading of Ross. Whether that is because the material just isn’t there to offer him more or not is unclear, but Robinson struggles to find a balance between his character’s philosophizing and vulnerability, rendering his performance underwhelming.

Silk Road gives the impression of drawing inspiration from The Social Network, but with a side of murder and a lot more illegal mayhem. What’s more, Ross’ impassioned declarations about empowering the people and standing up for something are framed in a way that practically excuses his behavior and justifies his actions. It also makes one wonder why this particular story needed to be told in this manner, if at all, if it wasn’t going to dig a bit deeper. Silk Road is surely compelling and has a lot of potential, but it’s imbalanced and lacking in suspense. With tighter writing and editing, the film would have been much stronger. 

Silk Road is now playing in select theaters and is available on demand and digital. The film is 117 minutes long and is rated R for pervasive language and drug content.

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