Director Tiller Russell is well versed in documentary filmmaking but for his latest feature, he has crafted an amazing true story into crime thriller Silk Road. Based on David Kushner’s Rolling Stone article Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall, the story centres around the conception of the notorious website that gives the film its name. Seemingly disillusioned by the stranglehold the US government has on their citizens, philosophical whiz-kid Ross (Nick Robinson) has a bold vision to create what he calls an ‘Amazon for drugs’. Before long, the site is an underground success and soon attracts the attentions of Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), a wizened DEA agent who is struggling to adapt to the modern methods of policing.
With a fast-talking smart-arse protagonist pioneering a website that would change the world, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to David Fincher’s Facebook origins flick The Social Network. Striving for a similar style with an arguably more amiable leading actor, Russell mostly pulls it off. Ulbricht’s internal monologue gives insight into his ingenious ideas and the narrative zips along at an enjoyable pace with archive montages spliced in to offer the context of the actual events. Horrific Tarantino-esque close-ups of terrible feet aside, the film is aesthetically pleasing and achieves a visual flair that works as a slick package for the subject matter. Problems arise with a grating romantic subplot that plays out exactly as you would expect, adding to a bloated third act that loses its way a little.
Since his breakthrough in indie hit Kings of Summer, rising star Nick Robinson has quietly gone from strength to strength and very much holds his own in this central role. Cocky and arrogant but with a moral vulnerability, he shows impressive emotional range as Ross gets in over his head. Despite his utterly illegal activity and questionable behaviour, we are encouraged to root for him and his likeability as a performer is integral to this. He butts heads with the experienced Jason Clarke who hams it up as the archaic federal officer Bowden who was actually nicknamed ‘Jurassic Narc’ by his colleagues. Whilst it’s fun for a while to see him stomping around chewing the scenery and asking how to ‘buy stuff on the YouTube’, his arc gets overly sentimental towards the end, distracting from the main thread of the tale.
Shedding cinematic light on a compelling true story, Silk Road is an entertaining piece of work, elevated by Nick Robinson’s brilliant portrayal of ‘the first millennial gangster’.