‘Silk Road’ Review: A Digital Drug Kingpin’s Undoing

This maladroit fact-based cyberthriller begins at a branch of the San Francisco Public Library in 2013. As Ross W. Ulbricht — the founder of an online marketplace called Silk Road, where illegal drugs were bought and sold — the actor Nick Robinson lays out, in voiceover, some bold anti-authoritarian sentiment. He mentions “the insurmountable barrier between the world as it is and the world as I want it,” and how his project was about “taking back our liberty.”

The movie than flashes back several years. At an Austin, Texas, bar, Ross flexes his pickup chops on Julia (Alexandra Shipp). “You wanna dance?” he asks. “No one else is,” she observes. “Exactly,” he replies. Heavy, man.

In many respects, “Silk Road” is an excellent examination of why you should probably never date, or maybe even socialize with, a libertarian. It comes up short in almost every other way, though. In the hands of David Fincher, Michael Mann, Olivier Assayas or Katheryn Bigelow, “Silk Road,” the story of Ulbricht’s outlaw project and how it came to ruin, could deliver thrills and food for thought. Under the aegis of the writer-director Tiller Russell, it delivers limpness.

Here, two D.E.A. agents who themselves committed crimes in pursuing the actual Silk Road case are morphed into one composite character, played by Jason Clarke, the one-time star of Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” who looks appropriately befuddled by his current circumstance. Tiller also tries to do Fincher’s “The Social Network” one better, showing Julia’s ultimate rejection of Ross as a trigger for him to conspire to commit murder. Nice overreaction, kid. Compounding other story and directorial missteps are dialogue exchanges such as this: “What if you could create an Amazon for drugs?” “You despise Amazon.” “I love freedom.”

Silk Road
Rated R for despising Amazon but loving freedom, and other bold moves. Running time: 1 hours 52 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Google Play, FandangoNow and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.

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