Before we plunge into the frenetic, cautionary-tale madness of “Silk Road,” the title card tells us:
“This story is true. Except for what we made up or changed.”
Very cheeky, “Silk Road” filmmakers! In the tradition of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Most of what follows is true.”
With that opening, writer-director Tiller Russell sets the tone for a stylized, fictionalized and yet essentially true and wild ride that plays like “The Wolf of Wall Street” Lite as we follow the ill-fated misadventures of real-life techie genius rogue turned infamous criminal Ross Ulbricht, a self-professed rebel who wanted to change the world and decided the best way to do that would be facilitating the sale of mass quantities of illegal drugs via the dark web.
Big mistake, Ross. Life-in-prison huge.
Adapting a 2014 Rolling Stone article by David Kushner titled “Dead End of Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall,” Tiller delivers a bang-up feature film on the heels of his stellar work helming the Netflix documentary series “The Night Stalker,” proving Tiller is skilled at telling crime stories in either genre. Compared to the brooding, horrific, keep-you-awake-at-night docuseries, “Silk Road” is a relatively breezy and slick slice of entertainment, with a fast-pace style befitting the material and expertly calibrated performances from the ensemble cast. The sweet-faced Nick Robinson can be so endearing and vulnerable in films such as “Love, Simon” and “Everything, Everything,” we just want to give him a big bear hug, but he’s equally adept at playing the Mark Zuckerberg-esque Ross, who is off-the-charts brilliant and can be charming in doses but is often such a self-involved smartass you want to wring his neck.
Set in the early 2010s, “Silk Road” introduces two main storylines that travel parallel paths for much of the movie before finally intersecting in head-on collision style. When we meet Ross, he’s a hyperactive super-thinker in his 20s who has been labeled a prodigy ever since he solved a Rubik’s Cube in under 30 seconds as a kid but has never stuck with anything — not that this stops him from talking a big game and professing to new girlfriend Julia (Alexandra Shipp) he’s an absolutist when it comes to individual freedoms and abhors government interference on every level, and he’s going to find that one thing that will change the world. As an early adopter of bitcoin, Ross finds the perfect currency for his nascent underground website, which he dubs Silk Road. Masking IP addresses and operating under a pseudonym, Ross starts off by delivering pot and relatively mild hallucinogens, but after he manipulates a writer for Gawker (remember Gawker?) into writing an extensive profile piece, Silk Road explodes into a multimillion-dollar business with thousands of customers — and the product line expands to include cocaine, meth and even illegal weapons.
Meanwhile, Jason Clarke knocks it out of the park in the kind of role he was born to play — that of the troubled, streetwise DEA agent Rick Bowden, who went so deep undercover he became an addict and is just now returning to work, at a desk job with a cyber-crimes unit where no one respects him and the boss just wants him to stay out of the way.
Rick’s having none of that. He’s so Internet-illiterate he thinks Silk Road is selling drugs “on YouTube,” but by a stroke of plot convenience, his longtime informant Rayford (Darrell Britt-Gibson) is a tech whiz with a sophisticated operation by which he sells designer sneakers. Under Rayford’s reluctant tutelage, Rick establishes an online connection with Ross and with the living-in-mom’s-basement sad sack nerd Curtis Clark (the always terrific Paul Walter Hauser), who has become Ross’ unlikely concierge. Even working online, Rick has a knack for getting crooks to trust him.
“Silk Road” occasionally gets lost in the weeds with detours into Rick’s personal problems, though Katie Aselton does strong work as Rick’s wife, who keeps giving him one more chance against her better judgment. Jimmi Simpson is the obligatory snide and condescending FBI agent in charge of the Silk Road investigation, who openly mocks Rick’s boots-on-the-ground methods and tells Rick to go ahead and fax him the details when he breaks the case, hahaha. (Jerk!)
On the surface, the rough-and-ready, middle-aged, grizzled street cop Rick and the laptop-wielding, twentysomething self-righteous but ultimately immoral Ross couldn’t be more different, but they share similar self-destructive DNA and neither can put the brakes on once they start spiraling downward. These guys both think they’re the admirable anti-hero in this story. At least one of them has been dead wrong from the jump.