(director/writer: Tiller Russell; screenwriter: based on the article “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall” by David Kushner; cinematographer: Peter Flinckenberg ; editor: Greg O’Bryant; music: Mondo Boys; cast:  Jason Clarke (Rick Bowden), Nick Robinson (Ross Ulbricht), Alexandra Shipp (Julia), Katie Aselton (Sandy), Jimmi Simpson (Chris Tarbell), Daniel David Stewart (Max), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Rayford), Lexi Rabe (Edie), Will Ropp (Shields), Paul Walter Hauser (Curtis Clark Green), Paul Blott (Liquor Store Clerk); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Stephen Gans, David Hyman, Duncan Montgomery, Alex Orlovsky, Jack Selby; Lionsgate; 2021)

“Got the right story but the wrong filmmaker to do it.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Got the right story but the wrong filmmaker to do it. Director/writer Tiller Russell (“The Last Rites of Ransom Pride”/” Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer”), a documentary filmmaker in his first narrative feature,  makes what should be a nail-biter into one that just never clicks. It’s a crime thriller based on a true story and is told based on the article “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall” by David Kushner.

The Texas-raised college grad, a deep thinking nerdy libertarian, the 27-year-old, Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson), who when he creates Silk Road, a dark website, by learning how to set it up on a YouTube demo, a site that’s untraceable that sells narcotics. Overnight it grows into a multi-million-dollar pipeline for illicit drugs as its savvy users know how to not identify themselves while scoring all kinds of drugs. But the Silk Road site is short-lived (2011-13), as the Feds quickly become aware of the illegal activity on it and close in on it. The “darknet” platform often described as an  “eBay for drugs,” where all kinds of contraband goods were anonymously sold by using for barter Bitcoin payments, and using as delivery services anything from USPS to Fed Ex.  Some thirty months after Ross launched Silk Road, the now 29-year-old millionaire was arrested in San Francisco, in the library on an FBI sting, and received a harsh sentence. Some might rightfully think of him as piece of shit, who got what was coming to him. Though Ross thinks of himself as a great liberator, helping the masses get freedom (by voiceover, he offers us these sentiments about himself as a great liberator for the masses). Others might see him as a misguided idealist, who got the shaft from the system for being an opportunist in using the Internet in illegal activities and received a life sentence.

The filmmaker wants the viewer to choose who was the really bad guy, the corrupt cop or the messianic dealer. OK, I thought the dealer was a shit and deserved a tough sentence. Which might not be the choice the filmmaker expected me to make, but Ross’ story never moved me and the failure to even mention how harmful his drugs could be and how many lives could be ruined by taking them convinced me our bright libertarian had a few holes in his philosophy. But the better answer is both the dealer and the renegade agent were shits, with the agent using illegal methods to trick suspects. In a movie that could set up no moral compass for its conflict situation to be resolved, everyone involved in the sting arrest looked bad.

The disreputable Baltimore DEA agent is a former drug addict and resident of a mental institution, who after botching an operation in the field with a drug cartel, is transferred to a computer desk job where his bosses want him to do nothing but retire a year from now and get his pension. Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), a computer illiterate, who goes undercover on his desk job for a cyber-crimes unit, manages to bring the dirty site down through entrapment and does so by using his street smarts to trick Ross in a cat-and-mouse game after making contact with him and fooling him into ordering hits on those trying to bring down his site. The agent is fictionalized, as he’s a composite of two agents combined as one.

There’s an amazing story here that transfers poorly on film, and left me mostly in the dark.

This is a tough film to keep track of things, as it sidesteps entirely the matter of where those drugs came from and avoids too many other questions about this drug dealing enterprise and the usual way cops violate the civil rights of citizens to catch the bad guys or how it uses their cop advantages for their own personal advantages (like our dirty agent trying to illegally extort some bread to send his troubled daughter to a special school).