Silk Road tells the story of Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson, Love Simon), the young man who created the titular darknet market website allowing people to buy narcotics online in 2011. Simultaneously, the film follows DEA agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke, Terminator Genisys) who went undercover to take Ulbricht down. While Silk Road is a theatrical crime drama based on a true story rather than a documentary, many have been surprised that the film doesn’t pick a side on Ulbricht’s guilt, and writer/director Tiller Russell has shared what that is.
After his arrest in 2013, Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison, and a petition has been started for his clemency. Rather than depict him as a criminal or a wrongly-convicted individual, Silk Road portrays Ulbricht as a human who made a decision and shows the fallout. The audience is left to decide whether or not they agree with the fallout, and director Tiller Russell talked to CinemaBlend about why he didn’t want to film to tell the audience whether Ulbricht is innocent or guilty.
Sometimes people kind of criticize me for exactly that reason. But for me, I never want to make a facile moral choice and kind of hand you my judgment on it. What I'm drawn to is characters that are complex and roiled with internal conflict and that are hard to get a read on. And so with both of these characters, that was my feeling about them, just as human being to human being. And so I thought, audiences are smart, let people draw their own conclusions. Present the story, present the characters, and then let people draw their own conclusions, moral and otherwise.
That makes a lot of sense. The purpose of making this film was not to sway people into feeling one way or the other about what happened but to tell the very interesting story that the court case presented, and offer multiple angles from which to view it. Tiller Russell certainly accomplished that, as he shows us pieces of the story from the lens of the DEA, agent Rick Bowden, Russ Ulbricht’s family and friends, and Ulbricht himself. Russell shared the following about the character development:
The character had this very dramatic arc, you know, the real Ross Ulbricht had this very dramatic arc. He went into this, I think kind of naively probably as a dreamer, ‘Hey, I want to change the world. I want to make my mark, I want to empower people's individual rights and freedoms.’ And I knew that because he was going to be going to a very dark place over time that it really was important to connect with him as a human being and understand who he was before. Because there's a significant before and after. In some way or another, it sort of, it almost struck me as like a Frankenstein story, you know, he creates this monster and then the monster gets out of his control.
Comparing Silk Road to a Frankenstein story is the perfect analogy. What we see in the film is exactly what Tiller Russell described: a well-intentioned creation that gets out of control. And establishing the “before” is probably the element that makes the storytelling really work in the end, because we see the character change over time and exactly how he got there.