Review: ‘Silk Road’ spills the unsavory journey of a dark-web drug lord

Alexandra Shipp leans over Nick Robinson, who is on his laptop, in a scene from the film.
Nick Robinson and Alexandra Shipp in the movie “Silk Road.”
(Catherine Kanavy / Lionsgate)
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Director Tiller Russell’s “Silk Road” — a dramatization of the rise and fall of dark-web drug lord Ross Ulbricht — opens with one hell of a caveat: “This story is true. Except for what we made up or changed.” OK!

Star Nick Robinson, playing Ulbricht, starts in on a voice-over narration pulled directly from the convicted felon’s journal, as quoted in the 2014 Rolling Stone article by David Kushner, from which the film is adapted. He opines about creating an online marketplace — the website Silk Road, an “Amazon for drugs” — where people could buy and sell things anonymously, free from the barriers of “the state.” Oh, boy. Yes, this is going to be two hours of listening to the philosophizing of a libertarian edgelord whose actions on those beliefs landed him in the slammer for life. All that is true.

What’s been enhanced is the role of a DEA agent who received six years in prison for stealing bitcoin during the investigation. The Rolling Stone article makes no mention of this agent, but for dramatic purposes, Russell, who adapted the screenplay, created the character of disgraced, over-the-hill agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), demoted to cyber crimes after an unfortunate incident in Puerto Rico and a stint in rehab. It gives a bit more tension to the cat-and-mouse investigation of Ulbricht, but it just seems like an excuse to pit old school, off-the-books tactics against the young, tech-savvy whippersnappers who scoff at Bowden’s methods.


So the old codger hunts down the tech bro in a film littered with tired tropes, like the long-suffering wives and girlfriends (Katie Aselton and Alexandra Shipp), and some unintentionally laughable dialogue. But strangest of all is the nagging undercurrent of reverence toward Ulbricht, almost a co-signing of his beliefs about ultimate freedom, even if his black market experiment ended in violence and prison. It is indeed a juicy true story filled with drugs and cyber assassinations, but one has to wonder why he’s getting the biopic treatment at all.

‘Silk Road’

Rated: R, for pervasive language, and drug content

Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes

Playing: Starts Feb. 19, Vineland Drive-in, City of Industry; Mission Tiki Drive-in, Montclair; and in general release where theaters are open; also on VOD