What you are about to see is a mixture of fact and fiction. The fact: there really was a drugs trafficker called Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson), he really was in his twenties and he really did strike up the notion to make a fortune on the internet between 2011 and 2013 when selling every drug imaginable online was such an attractive proposition he could not ignore it. The fiction: the man who tracked him down was a grizzled cop in middle age, Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), who was more interested in booting down doors - and suspects - than anything in cyberspace, but once he was suspended for overenthusiasm, he found himself relegated to an office position taking care of the small cybercrime department, just to get him out of the way...
And there's a problem with Silk Road from the off, as it admits in captions upfront that they have made half of their story up, which instead of giving credence to the truth, undercuts it to the extent that you may be more intrigued to find out what really happened than this embroidery. There was already an in-depth documentary on the case which would tell you everything you needed to know, as would the original article the screenplay was based on, which begged the question, why watch this, and that query was never quite answered to any satisfaction, even over the course of two hours running time. All this really meant was the viewer would approach this as fiction, not a faithful telling of whatever facts director Tiller Russell was twisting and exaggerating.
Another issue was that for too much of the film, it treated Ulbricht like the story's hero, when actually the hero was the FBI man who tracked him down (a computer specialist whose Google Fu was keenly honed) and would have made for a far more engaging protagonist than either Ulbricht or the invented Bowden (sounds like "modem"?). Especially when taken into account Bowden was a walking cliché from an earlier age of Hollywood thrillers, the macho tough guy who was more adept with his fists and a withering use of strong language than he was his people skills. Perfectly fine for a Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris flick, but what the hell was he doing in this tech-based yarn? Knowing from the start that he was not the real deal did not make his dinosaur persona any more acceptable and betrayed a lack of trust in the original material.
Add in some equally cliché girlfriend/wife issues for both characters to underline they were two sides of the same coin, you were one exchange of "We're not so unlike each other, you and I!" in a face off away from Tiller's bizarre insistence on transforming a very modern plot into something from an era that had come and gone. But while you sensed a grudging admiration for them both from the director, to his credit about two thirds of the way through a conscience began to call, and the implications of making millions (of cryptocurrency) out of drug addicts and suppliers who were some very nasty men indeed (not that we saw much evidence of them here) were not ignored. Nevertheless, while there was a note of pity for Ulbricht when he was caught, as we see happen at the beginning of the movie - the rest of it is a long flashback - by the end there appeared to have been a lesson learnt, and the libertarian obsessions the criminal had that justified his profiting on misery called into doubt. Yet it was a little too late in the narrative. And they were burying (half) the lede on a fascinating news story. Music by Mondo Boys.
[Silk Road is on digital platforms 22 March 2021 from Vertigo Releasing.]