The “dark web” has always been considered the Wild West of the internet, much to the chagrin of federal agencies which often have to grasp at changing VPNs and new cryptocurrencies to enforce laws and regulations on the content posted there. Silk Road (2021) provides viewers a fictionalized look into the true story of one of the earliest and most notable dark web phenomenons, Silk Road. The website was created and operated by Ross Ulbricht, which allowed people across the world to buy and sell illegal drugs with complete anonymity. Nick Robinson portrays the ambitious and libertarian Ulbricht, while Jason Clarke is Rick Bowden, the DEA agent whose efforts to bring down Silk Road ended up with his entanglement in the operation.
Ulbricht is introduced to the viewer through a voiceover about freedom while federal agents are close behind, looking to arrest him and seize his laptop. The film then jumps back to 2012, where disgraced cop Rick Bowden has just gotten out of rehab and returns home. His relationship with his wife is strained, especially as his previous drug use has left his wife to be the sole caretaker for their daughter, who has a learning disability. Upon his return to work, he’s informed he was almost fired but is instead transferred to the cybercrimes unit, where he’s largely expected to bide his time in an office the remaining months of his employment until he can retire, frustrating Bowden as he spent most of his career in the field.
Meanwhile, at a club in Austin, Texas, Ross and his friend Max (Daniel David Stewart) have gotten into a political discussion, mostly led by Ross and his ramblings about freedom and government overreach. He then meets Julia (Alexandra Shipp), who’s with a friend that pokes fun at Ross’s passionate monologue, but she seems at the very least open to some of his ideas. After Ross and Julia sleep together, they begin dating. Not long after, he introduces her to his parents, who can’t help but hide their disappointment at Ross’s various business ventures that haven’t worked out. Not long after, Ross starts Silk Road, promoting it on forums before Max and Julia point out that a limited audience like that won’t help the site grow. Julia offers to help Ross by giving him access to her contact with Gawker. The skeptical journalist writes an article about Silk Road, and within hours, the site’s traffic explodes. He decides to hire one of the site’s top sellers, chronicPain (Paul Walter Hauser), to help him manage the site.
With the help of his former informant, Rayford (Darrell Britt-Gibson), Bowden manages to create an account on Silk Road and begins communicating with Ross through the screen name “Nob.” He then convinces Ross to change his screen name to “dread” a reference to The Princess Bride’s (1987) Dread Pirate Roberts. As Bowden gains Ross’s trust, he turns to Rayford for more help on the workings of Silk Road and the dark web, as he has little to no support at work. He manages to find chronicPain’s real name and information, Curtis Clark Green of Utah, organizing a raid at his house.
Silk Road could be considered true crime meets The Social Network (2010), as Ulbritch’s success in the film closely parallels that of Mark Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) in that respective film. His obsession with his website causes him to alienate his friends who have supported him from the beginning. Ross is unaware that Max has been planning to move to New York, and Julia grows frustrated with Ross spending almost every waking moment on Silk Road rather than taking care of himself and building their relationship. While Zuckerberg’s sacrificing his closest friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) for Facebook’s success results in a lawsuit, Ross gets drunk at a party and is convinced by Bowden that Green is going to sell out Ross. In a panic, he orders Bowden to kill Green. The two men stage the murder, with Bowden sending Ross a photo of the finished job and cashing out on the Bitcoin payment Ross sent him. Ross’s increasing paranoia and isolation lead him to order fake IDs and passports, which are tracked by the FBI. Bowden, realizing his dealings with Ross could come to light, barely beats the agents to the apartment Ross is hiding out in, advising him not to accept the package and to delete all of their messages. Ross, of course, kept the messages and as his identity is figured out through a former screen name of his of various forums, the Feds close in, and he’s arrested in San Francisco.
Both Ross and Bowden are arrested and sentenced to prison. Bowden accepted Ross’s Bitcoin payment in order to pay for the expensive private school he and his wife wanted their daughter to attend. Bowden’s imprisonment is the final straw in his already strained relationship with his wife, who brings their daughter to visit him in prison. While Bowden’s arc concerning his family attempts to make him seem like a sympathetic character, it’s difficult to find him as such when he’s presented as the “irreverent maverick cop who doesn’t play by the rules” archetype. Not to mention, he wouldn’t have been able to even begin to crack Silk Road and talk to Ross without Rayford, whom he constantly goes to for advice and instruction on operation on the dark web.
Taking place in the early 2010s, before Bitcoin was mainstream and marijuana was legalized for recreational use in 15 states, Silk Road is that much more of a product of its time. In the nearly 6 years since Ross Ulbricht’s conviction in May 2015, the culture’s attitude surrounding drugs has changed, especially regarding convictions for non-violent drug crimes. The mandatory minimum sentences for buying, selling or possessing illegal drugs have long been considered excessive, and Ulbricht’s double life sentence plus forty years without parole shows the magnitude of drug-related sentencing. Of course, Ulbricht was charged and convicted with money laundering and conspiracy to commit computer hacking, all of which played a role in his sentencing–including the alleged murder-for-hire, for which he was never formally charged or tried. Still, as excessive as Ulbricht’s sentencing might seem, a white, libertarian tech bro shouldn’t necessarily be the face of changing drug legislation and sentencing as these policies have overwhelmingly affected men of color. However, Nick Robinson’s fantastic performance as Ulbricht should bring deserved attention and a new perspective on Silk Road and its founder to those outside of tech circles, especially as more people advocate for criminal justice reform in regards to drug related crimes.