SILK ROAD (2021)
Jason Clarke, Nick Robinson, Katie Aselton, Jimmi Simpson, Alexandra Shipp, Daniel David Stewart, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lexi Rabe, Will Ropp, Paul Walter Hauser
Directed by Tiller Russell
Based on a Rolling Stone article by David Kushner, various pieces of investigative journalism, and writer-director Tiller Russell’s imagination, “Silk Road” blends fact with fiction to bring the story of Austin, Texas hipster turned cyber kingpin Ross Ulbricht to the screen. Played by Nick Robinson ("Love, Simon") whose boyish looks serve as a nice contrast to his character’s online persona — he ordered hits on people — Ulbricht was a Libertarian, UT grad, and the mastermind behind the Silk Road marketplace on the dark web. With the click of a mouse, you could order any illegal drug and have it shipped discreetly via UPS or FedEx. Jason Clarke turns in a first-rate performance as the aged DEA agent bent on taking him down while battling his own demons and addictions.
Imagine if Dirty Harry was reassigned to a desk job, his .44 Magnum replaced by a Dell laptop with the latest Intel processor, and his superiors turned out to be a bunch of snot-nose punks who left his cheese out in the wind, welcome to Jason Clarke’s character Rick Bowden, who according to Russell, is a composite of several crooked cops.
After an opening scene at the San Francisco Public Library where Ulbricht (Robinson) is about to get pinched, the timeline jumps back three years to Baltimore as Bowden returns home after serving a brief stint in rehab for drinking and drugs, the result of going deep undercover. His marriage to wife Sandy (Katie Aselton) is hanging by a thread but he is close to daughter Edie (adorable Lexi Rabe) aka Peanut, who suffers from a learning disability.
Bowden is a year away from retiring with a pension, so he’s pulled off the streets (too much of a loose cannon) and re-assigned to a desk job in the Cybercrimes Unit. His new boss Shields (Will Ropp) would prefer Bowden to just sit around and watch Orioles games on his laptop and stay out of the way so the unit’s twenty-something group of Caltech and MIT grads can do their jobs. All of the superior officers in the film are easy to hate two-dimensional characters.
Meanwhile back in Austin, Ulbricht continues to use the internet “as an instrument of liberty” by starting a website on the dark web to sell marijuana. By using Tor software and the cryptocurrency Bitcoin he keeps his identity concealed. As Ulbricht explains to his girlfriend Julia (Alexandra Shipp) “The war on drugs is a farce. This is America. If you want to smoke a bowl, snort a bowl, and pop a pill that is your prerogative.” Soon his website Silk Road starts dealing in every kind of drug, as well as fake passports, and eventually weapons.
Ulbricht who was born in Austin lived there after graduating from the University of Texas at Dallas and attending Penn State. The film features quite a few Austin landmarks including the Railroad Graffiti Bridge, The State, and The Paramount Theatre, as Ulbricht along with best friend Max (Daniel David Stewart) develop the online Silk Road marketplace.
Darrell Britt-Gibson (who can also be seen in “Judas and the Black Messiah”) plays Bowden’s old narcotics informant Rayford who turns the DEA agent onto Silk Road which he calls “eBay for dope fiends.” In a funny scene, Bowden explains “I need someone to show me how to buy dope on YouTube” causing Rayford to bust out laughing then suggesting “Let’s get some meth on Google.” He helps Bowden set up a bitcoin account and make his first undercover drug purchase.
Even in this day and age when most of us are glued to smartphones or laptops, cyber films remain a challenge when it comes to keeping the viewer invested. “Silk Road” benefits from the performances of Clarke and Robinson whose characters develop a kinship despite being on opposite sides. Of course, there’s the obligatory tough cop dialogue, “I was locking up bad guys since before you started shaving your nuts” and the occasional cheesy line, “Seriously, I just f--ked a Libertarian” but Russell keeps the momentum up as the action cuts back and forth between Clarke and Robinson who are on a collision course. The moment when they finally meet throws the plot off course in an interesting direction that I wish would have been expanded before the finale.
Also look for a scene-stealing cameo by Paul Walter Hauser (“BlacKkKlandman,” “Richard Jewell”) as slacker-criminal Curtis Clark Green who plays a vital role in Bowden’s investigation. “Silk Road” was inspired by David Kushner’s Rolling Stone article “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall” and there are a couple of documentaries out there about Ulbricht including 2015’s “Deep Web.” Russell’s film which he calls “a product of journalistic research and wild flights of fiction” keeps you entertained from start to finish.
Now showing I select theaters and available to rent/own on several streaming platforms