It’s the grizzled old cop versus the rebellious tech wunderkind in Tiller Russell’s dark web thriller Silk Road – based on the true story of Ross Ulbricht, the 27-year-old who created and operated a darknet market site that became “Amazon for drugs” in 2011 and ran it until his arrest in 2013. But unfortunately, this intriguing tale has all the ingredients to excel, but arrives severely undercooked.

Ross (Nick Robinson) is all about freedom. He rails against the idea of state control, espousing ideals of a world where free will reigns over government legislature, and is eager to help shape that future. Having previously lacked a direction in which to channel his smarts for a cause he believes in, Ross finally makes the connection when he creates Silk Road; a place where people can buy and sell anonymously, without any trail leading back to them and conveniently have their narcotics delivered by the US postal service. After a Gawker article puts the website on the map, Ross finds himself raking in millions a day. 

On the other side of the tracks is Baltimore DEA cop Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke). Returning from a stint in rehab following what is ominously referred to as ‘the incident in Puerto Rico’, Rick is transferred to the cyber crimes unit where he faces yet more challenges. Deemed a dinosaur and shunted into a backroom office by a boss half his age, Rick stumbles across an old informant who introduces him to Silk Road and sets him on a path that threatens to bring everything crashing back down once more. 

The cat-and-mouse character set up is a familiar, but solid framework in which to crank up the pace in line with the stakes and tell a compelling story. Unfortunately what we get feels sleepy and half baked. There is never a reason to root for, or empathise with Ross. Sure, he’s a young man frustrated with the world and lacking direction, but Russell isn’t able to translate that in a way that feels meaningful. Settling for lofty voiceovers prattling on further about liberation, while the characters that fill Ross’ world, including his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) and friend, are paper-thin and simply exist to throw out a few cautionary statements. As his obsession with Silk Road costs Ross his relationship and soon has him spiralling into giving kill orders to cover his tracks, Nick Robinson does his best with the script he has, but nothing seems worthy of our emotional investment.

Given that Silk Road is in fact based on David Kushner’s 2014 Rolling Stone magazine piece “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall”, where so much of Ulbricht’s true essence and thoughts are documented, his big-screen transition is disappointing. In comparison, more is done to flesh out Rick. Desperate for the money to send his daughter to a school geared to her special needs, there is a clear motivation for each reckless and illegal action he takes to pursue Ross. Contextualised with his tumultuous past and treatment at work, a serviceable performance from Clarke provides a much-needed shred of interest for the audience to grab onto. 

As well as falling flat with its characters, there are other elements of the film that are confusing, including Bowden being ignored by his team and dismissed as ‘old’ countless times, but, excluding his boss, most of the colleagues he’s shown working the case with seem more on par in age to him than the young tech upstarts they’re tasked with chasing. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be on the same technological curve as Rick, but their jokes about him needing to use a fax machine seem irrational and forced. Rick is also used quite blatantly to deliver the message of not phasing out the tried and tested ‘in the field’ skillset in favour of a new fast-paced digital-driven world – but a lot of the advances he makes in the case are the result of him upping his knowledge of tech, or leaning on others who have this know-how. Conversely, while Rick’s streetwise savvy is what reels in his target, it’s also partially responsible for landing him in jail.  

Silk Road has strong source material to pull from, but a weak script and muddled approach squander what should have been a head start. Those seeking a crime film for a throwaway watch can be satisfied with the small wisps of action this dark web thriller provides. Ultimately, Silk Road isn’t a bad film. It’s just a disappointing one. 

Rating: ★★

Silk Road is available on digital platforms from 22 March 2021