Crime dramas based on true stories always have to navigate tricky territory. On the one hand, you want to be at least somewhat factually accurate. On the other hand, entertaining audiences is paramount. It all presents a challenge, especially when true crime and especially true crime documentaries are so beloved right now. All of that makes for some tough sledding with Silk Road, a crime drama that might have thrilled as a doc, but comes up a bit short as a narrative. It’s entertaining enough, but given the running time, there’s just not enough “there” there in order to fully satisfy.
Silk Road probably should have been a miniseries, not a movie. That way, the rise and fall could have been done deliberately. Here, the pacing is just off. We needed to spend several hours watching the website come about, grow, and then become a danger, so that it pays off. Otherwise, we have the issue this film has, which is you’re far too casual an observer. Things just seem to happen, and you shrug them off.
Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) a philosophical Libertarian in his twenties, wants to change the world. His worldview is that freedom is paramount, and that leads him to create a website without governmental interference or oversight. Christened Silk Road, it’s essentially a free market for anything, including, of course, illegal drugs. Operating on the dark net, Ross considers it a victory for freedom, even if his girlfriend Julia (Alexandra Shipp) worries about the danger. Then, there’s DEA agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), who has just been assigned to Cyber Crimes after his last assignment went sideways. When Silk Road gets on his radar, this old school cop sets out to take it down, despite a lack of any technological savvy.
As Ross develops Silk Road into a wildly profitable business, Rick, works the case, all while his wife Sandy (Katie Aselton) worries at home. The more obsessed he gets, the more she worries. At the same time, Ross is worrying Julia by becoming consumed by the site, as well as paranoid. History tells us it’ll all come crashing down, but we get to watch how it unfolds here.
The duo of Jason Clarke and Nick Robinson are solid leads, at least. Both are reliably good in everything, and that’s no exception here. Clarke makes his character a loving family man and sketchy cop, in equal measure. It’s a shame that the role is a walking cliche. Robinson nearly sells his vapid character, though he was admittedly more impressive last year in A Teacher. They fare better than their partners, as Katie Aselton and Alexandra Shipp are given one dimensional worrywarts to play. Supporting characters here include Paul Walter Hauser and Jimmi Simpson, but they’re thoroughly wasted.
Writer/director Tiller Russell is fairly workmanlike in his approach, and while it’s all mostly efficient, it has no heart or soul. Plus, there’s an odd visual tic of freeze-framing from time to time that’s just distracting. Silk Road needed to invest you more in the story, either with Clarke or Robinson, and ideally both. Russell does neither. The story itself is entertaining, but with slack pacing, you just don’t get enough to care. That’s where a longer form would have served it well. Characters could have actually been developed. Here, the film just sketches broadly, to only sporadic success.
Silk Road needed more time to invest us in its story. The flick just rushes through its running time, never roping you in. As a miniseries, as opposed to a movie, a better pace could have been established. Then, we might have had stakes to care about. As it stands, this is too easy to shrug off, and it shouldn’t be. As a crime drama, it’s barely worth a desk warrant.