Silk Road, a movie about an entrepreneurial young man who enters the drug trade, is based on a Rolling Stone article by David Kushner. I hadn't read the article which appeared in 2014, so I was only vaguely familiar with the story about how Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) built a thriving drug market on the dark web.
Perhaps to salve his conscience, Ulbricht cloaked his felonious activity in fuzzy libertarian thinking, constructing rationales about the moral obligation to evade regulation, an argument that has a familiar ring thanks to some of today’s more strident anti-government voices.
So, no, I didn't know much about Ulbricht's story, and wasn't familiar with his early forays into the mysteries of Bitcoin. But that doesn't mean that director Tiller Russell's high-tech procedural didn't feel familiar, another cynical foray into a badly corrupted world.
Having said that, I can’t say that familiarity bred much by way of contempt, maybe because the movie hits enough genre marks to prove modestly engaging.
Russell tempers the technical aspects of Ulbricht's story by setting up a stylistic conflict between Ulbricht and a grab-em-by-the-throat cop, played by Jason Clarke, whose performance holds the movie together.
Compromised and decidedly old-school in his approach to policing, Clarke's Rick Bowden, has been banished to a cyber-sleuthing unit of the DEA. He's just gotten out of rehab for his own drug abuse.
Populated by hot-shots with advanced degrees, the cyber crimes unit instantly turns Bowden into the proverbial fish out of water. But he refuses to sit on his hands.
Desperate to catch up with his younger colleagues, he recruits a small-time criminal from his former life (Darrell Britt-Gibson) to teach him about computers and the dark web.
Bowden attains enough mastery of the online world to create an artificial persona that puts him into close cyber association with the young man he's hunting.
Amoral and ambitious, we know from the outset that Ulbricht's hubris eventually will lead his downfall and it hardly qualifies as a surprise when his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) begins sounding alarms about dangerous behavior.
Tiller, who also wrote the movie's screenplay, does a reasonably good job of untangling the complexities of Ulbricht's scheme and there's enough upholstery (glimpses of Ulbricht's family and of Bowden's domestic life) to save the movie from one-note repetition.
In keeping with the movie's cynicism, Bowden never emerges as a heroic figure. We're in a world where blurred lines prove pervasive, not exactly a groundbreaking slant for movies of this ilk but a genre requirement nonetheless.
Who knows? Silk Road may turn out to be a pioneering effort as cybercrime begins to replace street crime in the pop-cultural vocabulary. Or, perhaps it's just another straight-on helping of big-screen crime.
That’s not a bad thing but it doesn’t make for the most memorable of movies.