Ross Ulbricht was the founder of Silk Road, the notorious “dark web” marketplace, prior to his arrest in 2013. Convicted of crimes that included money laundering, computer hacking and conspiracy to traffic fraudulent identity documents, Ulbricht has been sentenced to decades in prison. He was also accused by prosecutors of murder-for-hire, but never convicted on any of those charges, giving him an unusually long sentence for someone not convicted of anything violent.
Ulbricht is a figure of great controversy, with many internet freedom activists long arguing, unsuccessfully, for his clemency or release. He was allegedly angling for a pardon in the waning days of the Trump presidency, but that effort was also unsuccessful. It’s undisputed that Ulbricht—who used the Princess Bride-derived alias The Dread Pirate Robert—did innovative things with Bitcoin, the dark web, and the Tor browser. The film also revealed that two different government officials associated with the Silk Road case ended up convicted of crimes themselves, including extortion, money laundering and obstruction of justice.
The movie Silk Road, which comes out Friday in theaters and on VOD, is Hollywood’s stab at a fictionalized biopic of Ulbricht, starring Nick Robinson (best known from Love, Simon) as the Silk Road founder, and Jason Clarke as the government agent who brought him down but later ended up behind bars himself. The film is based on “Dead End on Silk Road,” a magazine article from Rolling Stone in 2014.
Written and directed by Tiller Russell, who also directed the recent Netflix series Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, Silk Road is far from the most interesting possible movie to be made from this story. It’s presented somewhat inertly and isn’t very arresting visually. Silk Road is not likely to have great appeal to either supporters or detractors of Ulbricht’s.
We’ve seen many ways to tell stories about how criminal and drug conspiracies worked, from Goodfellas to American Gangster to New Jack City. We’ve also seen The Social Network, which found a way to take the story of a coder and tech genius and make it fascinating.
Silk Road, though, doesn’t really build on either of those traditions. It somehow finds a way to make a fascinating story really boring.
As played by Robinson, Ulbricht sounds like a more libertarian version of the depiction of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network—he speaks mostly in tech jargon, libertarian political cant, and surface-level business strategizing. He’s also not particularly charismatic, at least compared to characters the same actor has played in other movies.
Ulbricht created Silk Road, the movie implies, out of a deep belief that because the war on drugs is wrong, selling drugs must be right. Silk Road also conducted its transactions with Bitcoin, long before that cryptocurrency was a household name.
We see the moment when Ulbricht told Gawker reporter Adrian Chen about Silk Road—because if you’re going to engage in a criminal conspiracy, it’s always a great idea to tell the media about it. The Gawker angle, though, did make me wish that the planned streaming series about Gawker, supposedly kiboshed last year by Apple, would find a home elsewhere.
At the heart of the film’s problems is its depiction of Ulbricht, who isn’t depicted with any nuance, and is never the slightest bit convincing when he makes arguments. He’s more of a full-on villain than anything else.
The movie also seems to have less interest in Ulbricht than it does in the agent character, played by Clarke as a disgraced former addict looking for redemption. Clarke’s character appears largely based on disgraced DEA agent Carl Force, although his name and some details have been changed. (“This story is true, except for what we made up or changed,” the film says in a card at the beginning, establishing a cheeky tone that it never returns to again, even for a second.)
Then there’s the score, by the composer duo known as Mondo Boys, which is intrusive as it is cliche. And in its third act, the film sort of halfheartedly turns into a thriller.
Alexandra Shipp and Katie Aselton (from The League) play the girlfriend and wife, respectively, of Robinson and Clarke, and both are somewhat thankless roles, even though both actresses are quite talented. As a customer of Silk Road, there’s Paul Walter Hauser—Shawn Eckhardt in I, Tonya and Paul Walter Hauser in Richard Jewell—playing another figure caught up in a real-life crime tale. Jimmi Simpson, from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, has some fun scenes as Clarke’s snide colleague.
The story has already been the topic of multiple documentaries. Deep Web, which came out in 2015 and was directed by former Bill and Ted actor Alex Winter, and mostly concerned Ulbricht’s trial. Silk Road—Drugs, Death and the Dark Web was another documentary, produced by the BBC.
The Winter documentary, in particular, was mostly predicated on the notion that Ulbricht was unfairly railroaded by an overzealous government; Silk Road can’t even mount an argument like that. And aside from a couple of lines of dialogue, the film doesn’t raise the notion that the government often has little understanding of how cybercrime works.
At one point Joel and Ethan Coen were reportedly working on a film about the topic that never came to fruition, although the Coen project was based on a different book than Silk Road was, so theoretically it still could. If they do, and maybe make a Burn After Reading—style film about the absurdity of the whole thing, it will likely end up better than Silk Road.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.