Freedom and Criminality are Achieved by the Push of a Button in ‘Silk Road’

A still from 'Silk Road'. Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) is shown in a mid-shot, centre frame, he is holding a phone in one hand and is looking down to his laptop which you can only partly see in the image. He is a young white man in his twenties with short dark hair, minimal facial hair and wearing a green t-shrit and blue hoody.
Vertigo Releasing

The pursuit of liberty is complex. Everyone has the right to it, but how far do you go to obtain it? What lines are you willing to cross? 

Based upon true events, including an article published in Rolling Stone magazine, ‘Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall’ by journalist David Kushner, Silk Road tells the story of two very different people as they engage in a parallel struggle to leave their mark on the world – a struggle that results in bigger consequences than either were willing to acknowledge. 

Having just gotten out of rehab, DEA agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke) is reassigned to the cybercrimes division as a result of his previous drug abuse. On the other side of the country, young Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson), too philosophical for his own good, is determined to change the world regardless of the multiple business ideas he’s tried in the past; he just doesn’t know how, but the answer soon comes in the form of something rather unexpected: a keyboard. From that moment on, Ross decides to create a site on the dark web where people can buy drugs and stay anonymous through Bitcoin exchange and keep his ‘customers’ from being tracked by the government through the highly encrypted computer code he’s taught himself to write. 

Three short months later, the Silk Road, aka the ‘Ebay for drugs’ is up and ready for business. At the same time, Bowden is wholly out of his element in cybercrimes, and is continually struggling to adapt in a world of technology and catching the bad guys behind a desk as opposed to active field work. Despite this hurdle however, Bowden has gotten word that people are beginning to purchase narcotics online, so he tracks down one of his former informants to show him the ropes – he’s taken to the Silk Road website. In order to spread the word about his platform, Ross contacts a reporter; “direct your energies toward the black market” and within hours, business skyrockets and within months, Silk Road is up and running in 17 different countries and catering to more than a million users. Unfortunately, as the profits roll in, so does attention from the law.  Bowden is recruited to join an FBI task force that is put together to not only shut down the Silk Road but apprehend who is responsible. Yet Bowden has already been conducting his own illegal investigation by posing as a user and a dedicated fan of Ross’ enterprise. The two parties have been communicating with one another for months on a private message board. But trouble can only be kept at bay for so long, and as Ross starts to get more paranoid, Bowden starts to act more ruthless –when the site becomes involved in murder, it’s only then, do they realised that their shared obsession might just be their downfall.

A still from 'Silk Road'. Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke) is shown sitting on a sofa with another man, both of them looking at a television screen.
Vertigo Releasing

Written and directed by Tiller Russell, Silk Road is a true crime thriller but not in the conventional way: there’s little gunfire, even less gore, and no devolving serial killers. If anything, the film is a suspense piece, made creepy by the realisation that total anonymity is a myth. Someone is always watching, be it another person, a camera or our very own computer screens, just waiting to spill our darkest of secrets. 

The production design and cinematography isn’t spectacular but it doesn’t need to be; this piece isn’t made to win awards. It’s made to tell a story – one that, in an age so deeply embedded in digitization, should be told as a reminder and a warning about the very thin line that separates freedom, anarchy and illegality. While it can feel a bit slow in some moments, and the transitions between major revelations are choppy, the film centres on an intriguing premise, and the performances given by Clarke and Robinson are commendable. 

Despite engaging in narcotics trafficking and conspiracy, one can’t help but root for Ross. Robinson exudes likeability and naivety, regardless of how crafty he is with a computer or how his decisions get progressively violent. As for Clarke, his character is similar to many of his previous roles: an ambitious, tactical man who can be categorised as a conniving antihero or even a villain, depending on whose eyes you’re viewing him through. Only this time, both cat and mouse have something to lose. 

The overall story spans across a timeframe of three years or so, and Russell does a good job condensing as well as explaining a complicated concept to viewers. On a more critical note, it would not have hurt if the intimate relationship between Bowden and Ross was explored even further, considering how much they went through together. 

You can be however you want on the internet”. As Silk Road demonstrates, that is very true indeed. 

Silk Road is available on VOD from March 22nd

by Kacy Hogg

Kacy is an English Lit student living in the Great White North (no not Winterfell unfortunately), Canada. Her favourite films include the Harry Potter series, CinderellaCaptain America: The Winter SoldierThe Hangover, and Lady Bird. She’s also an avid binge-watcher of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. You can follow her on Twitter here: @KacHogg95

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