Who could have predicted the director of the popular Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer series would churn out a true crime feature with a Wikipedia article’s narrative scope? Tiller Russell treats the downward path of cybercriminal Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) — which ends with his conviction and permanent incarceration at age 31 — like an afterthought. The story serves as a trojan horse for the real goal: a platform to pontificate how Millennials grift to get ahead instead of the more honest working, if politically incorrect Baby Boomer generation.
Tiller’s script goes out of its way to morally acquit “Jurassic Narc” Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), while Ulbricht’s disproportionate sentencing (considering the murder-for-hire schemes weren’t real) is viewed as the result of a flawed judicial system. Silk Road is less a cautionary tale than it is a soapbox for Boomer self-aggrandizement. Bowden’s experience suggests that his generation’s job displacement is a real crisis, with digitized workspaces tending to leave all but the young and tech-savvy behind. While his precinct is failing to solve ongoing investigations with units specifically designed to tackle cybercrimes, Bowden wants to cut through the red tape and rely on his instincts, informants, and resources available to him that don’t involve a computer screen.
Bowden’s superior, Shields (Will Ropp), is half his age and appears to take pleasure in dismissing the older officer at every turn. Of course, Bowden’s stubborn pride gets the better of him, though he behaves like he has no idea why he’s benched from fieldwork in the first place: his racist record of assaulting Puerto Rican suspects without provocation. Either way, Bowden continues to double down on operating outside legal lines to prove he’s still got an investigatory edge that Millennials and younger generations simply don’t. However, much of the breakthroughs he makes are thanks to his informant (Darrell Britt-Gibson) that he forces involvement upon.
The informant, Rayford, helps Bowden set up a fake alias promising to finance Ulbricht’s dark web drug marketplace operation. Also involved is Curtis Clark Green (Paul Walter Hauser), a man who partners with Ulbricht to money launder and power the server. Once the Feds become aware of the “Silk Road” website’s illegal activities, an FBI group led by Chris Talbert (Jimmi Simpson) works in conjunction with Bowden to get Hauser on their side. Together, the group falsifies threats to Green’s life as a way to incriminate Ulbricht for more severe charges.
So why is it that I’ve barely scratched the surface on the key figure in this story? You’ll have to direct your complaints to management, Tiller Russell, who is more concerned with humanizing the duplicitous agents in charge of bringing him down than giving its chief perpetrator any real depth. While viewers are on pins and needles to learn if Bowden’s learning-disabled daughter is getting a scholarship to a special education program, Ulbricht is so far deep in his Libertarian cause of working outside governmental systems that he’s basically written off. His girlfriend Julia (Alexandra Shipp) and best friend Max (Daniel David Stewart) need little convincing to support him but only back off once he becomes obsessed with his venture — not because of its legal and moral ramifications.
Another true story narrative that begins at the end, leaving little room for suspense or anticipation, Silk Road does a lot of finger-wagging at younger generations. The assumption is that old-timers worked hard for everything they ever earned, and the “problem” with today’s generation is their lack of work ethic or vocation certainty opens doorways to criminal back alleys, i.e., the deep dark web. The crime thriller lectures but falls on deaf ears, mostly because many of the assertions they make are hypocritical considering the generation source, and nothing is registered by a product that offers no humanistic synergy. There’s just a whole lot of moving parts rushing to a tragic, unnecessary foregone conclusion.