The wild scheme of Ross Ulbricht, a young physics grad who set up a massive online illegal drugs market, keeps us hooked to the bitter end in Silk Road, a fictionalised version of his story
17 March 2021
streaming from 22 March
IN OCTOBER 2013, Ross Ulbricht was arrested by the FBI and charged with money laundering, conspiracy to commit computer hacking and conspiracy to traffic narcotics. Two years earlier, Ulbricht had launched the Silk Road, the first modern dark web market, known for selling drugs that are illegal in the US.
Suddenly, users could order any illicit substance they wanted from dealers online and have it delivered, no questions asked, to their homes by the US Postal Service the very next day.
Ulbricht’s site operated as a Tor hidden service, making it easier for its users to browse it anonymously and conduct all their transactions using untraceable cryptocurrencies. Within a few months, Ross had amassed a huge following under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts (a reference to The Princess Bride movie) and a small fortune in bitcoin thanks to an article about the site, which appeared in the now defunct Gawker blog.
But what was the route that took a twentysomething, middle-class physics graduate from Texas to the FBI’s most-wanted list?
In Silk Road, the movie version of the story, writer-director Tiller Russell (whose catalogue includes Night Stalker: The hunt for a serial killer, a four-part exploration of the crimes of Richard Ramirez) maps out Ulbricht’s trajectory from law-abiding citizen to drug player in this flawed crime story. It is based on “Dead End On Silk Road: Internet crime kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s big fall”, a Rolling Stone article written about Ulbricht by David Kushner.
The film opens at a branch of the San Francisco Public Library in 2013, where Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) is being trailed by undercover federal agents hoping to catch him red-handed logging onto his site. Then it flashes back to a couple of years before that, to a Texas bar where gaudy libertarian show-off Ulbricht is attempting to smooth-talk his way out of an awkward political exchange with Julia (Alexandra Shipp).
Soon the two become inseparable, and when he jokingly suggests launching a website from which dealers can easily sell drugs, both Julia and Ulbricht’s best friend Max (Daniel David Stewart) are happy to go along with his wild scheme.
Although we are cheekily warned from the start that “this story is true. Except for what we made up or changed”, there are clearly some aspects of the tale that are simply there to pad out an otherwise stale and meandering screenplay. For example, a subplot featuring a brilliant turn from Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) as crooked cybercrime agent Rick Bowden often feels superfluous.
Robinson gives a suitably nervy and understated performance as the anti-hero you wish you could root for. It is this moral ambiguity that gives the film the edge it needed, but it is a shame that more isn’t made of this by Russell. Elsewhere, Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya and Richard Jewell) gives another scene-stealing turn as hapless Utah hacker Curtis Clark Green, Ulbricht’s employee.
Overall, Silk Road often seems unsure where its sympathies lie, and this is its main problem. Having said that, there is just enough here to keep those who are unfamiliar with the story hooked till the bitter end. Just don’t go expecting anything as good or full of cracking dialogue as David Fincher’s The Social Network or you will be sorely disappointed.
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