Producers: Stephen Gans, David Hyman, Duncan Montgomery, Alex Orlovsky and Jack Selby   Director: Tiller Russell   Screenplay: Tiller Russell   Cast: Jason Clarke, Nick Robinson, Alexandra Shipp, Katie Aselton, Jimmi Simpson, Daniel David Stewart, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lexi Rabe, Will Ropp and Paul Walter Hauser   Distributor: Lionsgate

Grade:  B-

Criminality and corruption abound in Tiller Russell’s dramatization of the case of Ross Ulbricht, the bright young fellow who masterminded the darkweb site called Silk Road, which used data encryption, routing through multiple servers and bitcoin payment to allow users to make drug purchases anonymously online and have the highly illegal product delivered directly to them. He began the site in 2011 and continued it until 2013, when he was apprehended, tried and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. 

The rise and fall of Ulbricht, played by the rather colorless but adequate Nick Robinson, is followed pretty well in Tiller Russell’s screenplay; the initial participation of his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp) and a pal here named Max (Daniel David Stewart) is noted, and while the details of his family life may have prompted some invention for dramatic effect, his increased desperation as the operation unravels, and the lengths to which he went to save himself, are pretty accurate, as is the depiction of his arrest.

More embellished is the other part of the narrative, about Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), a DEA agent who blackmails Ulbricht and ultimately pays the price in prison too, though for a shorter period.  There’s actually a basis of truth to Bowden’s role in the story; the character is based on a member of the task force named Carl Force (though another agent, a former Secret Service man named Shawn Bridges, was also involved in shaking down Ulbricht).

But Russell has been fairly free with this part of his story for dramatic effect.  It’s true that Force, like Bowden, had personal and professional problems that induced him to go rogue; but Bowden’s are presented as much more serious—he’s just out of prison, in fact.  And Force was a much younger man than Bowden, who’s on the verge of retirement, and not the neophyte in matters electronic that Bowden is depicted as here.

But one can understand why Russell made the choices he did.  By portraying Bowden as a dinosaur unceremoniously shifted from street duty to cybercrime, the script emphasizes the contrast not only with cocky kid Ulbricht, but the agent’s new boss Shields (Will Ropp) and Tarbell (Jimmi Simpson), the head of the DEA task force, both of whom treat him condescendingly as a hopeless anachronism.  It also allows for the introduction of Rayford (Darrell Britt-Gibson), an erstwhile snitch of Bowden’s and a streetwise guy who can tutor his handler about how to use Google and manipulate crypto-currency.  And it permits the expansion of the narrative subplot about Bowden’s family, wife Sandy (Katie Aselton) and sweet little daughter Edie (Lexi Rabe) whose needs drive his need for cash.

Moreover, the characterization makes way for some welcome humor as Bowden clumsily learns the rudiments of software usage into order to track down first  Curtis Clark Green (Paul Walter Hauser), Ulbricht’s Utah sub-boss, and then Ulbricht himself.  The portrayal of Green as a drugged-out slacker may be a dramatic exaggeration, but Hauser has fun playing him as such, and Clarke is obviously enjoying himself combining tough-guy cliché with the humorous shtick about the old dude trying to come up to speed on the computer tools he needs to employ to uncover his quarry’s well-concealed IP address and then create an online persona to bilk the guy.  In that respect his interaction with Britt-Gibson is particularly well handled.  So while one can quibble with the liberties Russell has taken in fashioning Bowden, in the end the agent’s part in “Silk Road” is actually more absorbing and entertaining than that in which Robinson’s Ulbricht holds center stage. 

The movie has, it must be said, a problem common to all pictures in which computer screens and text messages play a major role—they’re boring to watch and read.  In this case, though, the drawback isn’t as acute as it often is, because Russell keeps the action moving at a fairly rapid clip and Greg O’Bryant’s editing rarely allows the energy to flag.  The other tech credits—Peter Flinckenberg’s cinematography and Richard Sherman’s production design—aren’t as noteworthy, but they’re certainly competent, and the score by Mondo Boys adds to the propulsive clip without getting too abrasive. 

Of course “Silk Road,” like all such stories, winds up as you know it will; it’s a docu-drama at heart, after all, albeit a heavily worked-over one.  The main surprise is not how it turns out, but how enjoyable it is getting to the preordained finish.