Labeled a “true story” except for the parts director/writer Tiller Russell “made up or changed,” Silk Road could have, and should have, been a fascinating window into the dark web, contemporary drug trafficking, and cryptocurrency. Instead, it avoids the smooth, resilient, rich texture of silk and has the feel of a knock-off imitation that one could buy at Target.
The silk in Silk Road does not refer to a fabric, of course, but to the famed trade route that connected the East and West that began during the Han Dynasty – proof positive that the Chinese were involved in trade long before Mr. Trump tried to corner them into being fair about it.
However, what is fair and right is a theme that director Russell toys with throughout the movie but ultimately fears making. The script’s timidity and long, dull sequences in which the main character stares bewildered at his computer screen make for a halting post movie conversation that pits libertarians against run-of-the-mill conservatives.
The Plodding Plot
The movie is based on the life and times of a young libertarian named Ross Ulbricht, who has a dream of changing the world. Freedom and liberty are his calling cards, so he creates a website that becomes known as the Amazon of drugs – and names it Silk Road. In short order, Ulbricht is up to his neck in trouble and orders the murder of not one but two of his compatriots. Now he has really screwed the pooch, and the audience knows that it’s only a matter of time before Ulbricht ends up in an orange jumpsuit.
However, before the young hero or anti-hero dons his prison-issued garb and the screen fades to black, the viewer must endure numerous pointless and perplexing scenes. Is Ulbricht a bad guy or a hero? Is the DEA dude doing the wrong thing for the right reason? It feels for all the world that the scriptwriter is so baffled by the possibilities of a truly free market where good and evil are present, he decides to forfeit any point of view at all.
At every turn, the 27-year-old tech geek makes poor decisions, leaving the viewer to recall the famed line from Fever Pitch: “This one’s not too bright.” Thus, the movie’s audience is left with a not very engaging or likable protagonist. Mixed into this cauldron of confusion is an over-the-hill DEA agent lured into the Silk Road honey trap. This foil represents two agents caught with their hands in the crypto-cookie jar or at least committed crimes in the Silk Road affair.
Let’s cut to the chase and put it plainly: Go and see the movie, anyway. What? Why? Because despite its missed opportunities and foibles, Silk Road explores some vital themes that aren’t often discussed in Hollywood movies. Those with even a cursory understanding of libertarianism will find it endlessly fascinating. But be sure you take at least some kind of dopamine-enhancing neurotransmitter before you head into the theatre; otherwise, you may not be able to keep from nodding off. You will not, however, be able to buy your upper on the Silk Road.
Read more from Leesa K. Donner.