There is a wealth of confirmation to be found about many of our worst nightmares in SILK ROAD, a cautionary tale of stereotypes, specialization, and the consequences of absolute freedom. Based on an article by David Kushner in Rolling Stone, it charts the rise and fall of Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson), a 20-something idealist of a Libertarian whose daddy issues and affection for esoteric economics led him to found the Amazon of the dark web, the eponymous Silk Road. As a virtual marketplace for anything short of kiddie porn, nuclear weapons, and murder-for-hire, its mandate was a completely free market for illicit substances conducted in absolute anonymity, hence making it a safe place to conduct business that would ordinarily entail legal consequences.
Ulbricht’s nemesis is Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), a DEA agent assigned to permanent desk duty after blowing a bust during a cocaine binge. It’s not just any desk duty, it’s a transfer to the cyber-crimes unit, a role for which Bowden is spectacularly unsuited, something brought home to the audience when he asks his quondam informant, Rayford (Darrell Britt-Gibson) how to buy drugs from YouTube.
Despite his ignorance of even the most basics of hi-tech theory and/or practice, and the sneering distaste he encounters from supervisors half his age who have never worked the streets, Bowden makes it his business to track down the shadowy figure who has made the post office his drug pipeline with such cloaking skill that his thriving online business ($1M a day to start with) hasn’t alerted the very authorities tasked with stamping it out.
The script by director Russ Tiller makes for an interesting character study of two people who don’t quite fit in, and the changes in each that occur when their paths cross. Fresh-faced Robinson nails Ulbricht’s hubris of innocence. The megalomania and self-absorption implicit in his plan to subvert the world’s economy in the name of freedom has the sweetness of a child sharing a laboriously executed crayon drawing with a parent who will ooh and ahh over the vision while overlooking the obvious flaws in the rendering. When he shares that he’s keeping detailed notes about the process of starting Silk Road for the convenience of the people who will write about him, there is a whiff of actual selflessness in the conceit. So when this starry-eyed believer in absolute freedom agrees to the murder of someone who gave him up to the authorities, it is genuinely horrifying. As for the absolute loneliness, that, too, is horrifying, as we watch him disconnect from the people who care about him, and his realization that it is all his fault.
As for Clarke, he finds the right balance between macho toughness and the tortured soul just out of rehab who has lost his professional identity, and is clinging to his personal one with desperate tenacity. The hunt for the webmaster behind Silk Road becomes his lifeline even as his contentious relationship with Rayford becomes the film’s most interesting dimension. The grudging mutual respect has a bracing tension that makes it unpredictable and, in its own way, the unexpected heart of the film, competing even with the one Bowden has with his learning-impaired little girl, whose special needs push the limits of Bowden’s ethical boundaries As does the complete indifference his supervisors show when he brings them hard evidence about the perp they are tracking, one literally telling him to put his papers back in his bag and leave. The way Clarke has Bowden shrug off the caustic put-downs has a nice subtlety, signaling to the mocker that he accepts it, yet simultaneously signaling us that it’s making him all the more determined. The only flaw is Clarke’s accent, which slips a bit into its Aussie roots from time to time.
With welcome flashes of absurdist humor, and the satisfaction of experience showing up the cocksurety of youth, SILK ROAD suffers with a pacing that is far too deliberate to maintain the suspense of tracking down a kid who has gotten in over his head, but is smart enough, or deluded enough, to keep treading water. It is at its best when it dissects motives that blur distinct lines of certainty, and the clever way it speaks to the uncharted territory that is the internet. Tiller is precise, but not didactic, as he reveals the illusion of cyber privacy, and what the implications have been, and possibly will be, for a virtual space where the only rules are those of bandwidth and the only limits are the creative impulses, good and bad, of the human mind.