Silk Road (3 stars)

Silk Road

Jason Clarke steals the show as a maverick cop in a film about the titular darknet site and its young creator

Confessing at the outset to blending 'journalistic research and wild flights of fiction,' Silk Road shines a light on a notorious cybercrime and squeezes it into the model of a maverick cop movie. Documentarian Tiller Russell is at the helm of a moderately exciting narrative feature about the titular darknet site, created and operated by Ross Ulbricht – described here at one point as 'the first millennial gangster', a moniker which in no way suits him. Based on David Kushner's long-form article, with Kushner and Ulbricht's ex-girlfriend Julia Vie consulting, the filmmakers appear to have done their research, but it's damning that the most interesting character in their story is fictional.

Frontloading his film with cliches, Russell outlines Ulbricht's desire to change the world. Played by Nick Robinson (Jurassic World; Love, Simon), this wide-eyed libertarian subscribes to some pretty out-there ideas, while his world-changing concept doesn't exactly make him Gandhi, as we watch him setting up a darknet marketplace in order to peddle drugs. Regardless, he attracts the romantic interest of Alexandra Shipp's Julia, along with the inevitable attention of the authorities, who take their sweet time closing in.

Inhabiting a composite character based on corrupt individuals who worked the case, Jason Clarke (Terminator Genisys, Zero Dark Thirty) plays 'door-kicker' DEA agent, Rick Bowden. Recently released from a psychiatric institution, he's been moved to cybercrimes ahead of claiming his pension, despite barely being able to use a computer. If the character is straight out of the dirty cop playbook, Clarke brings a great deal of charisma to his performance and there are some sweet bonding scenes between him and his preferred informant Rayford (Darrell Britt-Gibson), who helps this sausage-fingered typist get to grips with modern tech. Although he's dismissed as a dinosaur by his young boss (Will Ropp) and the FBI taskforce he becomes part of (led by Jimmi Simpson), on the quiet, Rick's old-school investigative methods and knack for winning trust begin to reap results.

Robinson might seem pretty well cast, yet his Ulbricht is a clueless and tediously self-absorbed individual, who's hard to get a decent read on, so it's down to Clarke to give us a compelling character and he carries the film impressively, reining in some of his more OTT tendencies. Britt-Gibson, too, is very likeable, and there's a small but entertaining turn from Richard Jewell's Paul Walter Hauser as a slovenly associate of Ulbricht's. Cybercrime is hard to make sexy but Silk Road manages to fashion a largely gripping story, even if it fails to deliver a weighty or insightful look at the crook at its heart.

Available to watch on demand from Mon 22 Mar.

Silk Road

  • 3 stars
  • 2021
  • US
  • 1h 52min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Tiller Russell
  • Written by: Tiller Russell
  • Cast: Jason Clarke, Nick Robinson, Katie Aselton, Jimmi Simpson, Daniel David Stewart, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lexi Rabe, Will Ropp, Paul Walter Hauser, Alexandra Shipp
  • UK release: 22 March 2021

A tech-savvy and philosophical twenty-something Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) sets up a website accessible only on the dark net. Known as Silk Road, it sells drugs openly. Agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke) heads undercover to bring the site and creator down.