By Leah Greenblatt
February 19, 2021 at 11:38 AM EST
Credit: Catherine Kanavy/Lionsgate

It's become a running trope to hail the unintended timeliness of certain movies released over the past quarantine year or so — a stream of pre-COVID narratives somehow psychically tapped into our new (ab)normal.

The fact-based thriller Silk Road (out today) has no shortage of that kind of currency, though maybe not quite in the way its makers intended: When a floppy-haired post-grad named Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) shouts about "Taking back our liberty," there's an ugly ring to the phrase that it might not have had just a few short months ago.

The tone of Ulbricht's political screeds — a little Rand Paul, a lot of deep Reddit — holds queasy echoes of certain recent national events. But in the mid-aughts where Silk's story begins, his idea of freedom mostly meant creating the movie's titular real-life drug hub on the dark web: a Costco-style clearinghouse for everything from Xanax to heroin that managed to process untold transactions over the course of its two-year-plus run.

At the outset, he's just another Millennial dude-bro talking too loudly at a bar; still, it's enough to intrigue a low-key girl like Julia (X Men: Dark Phoenix's Alexandra Shipp), against her better judgment. Soon she and Ross are a couple, and along with his equally incredulous friend Max (Catch 22's pleasingly dry Daniel David Stewart), a witness to the earliest seeds of what would suddenly, explosively become Silk Road.

It isn't long until the feds are watching too, though Jason Clarke's blustering agent Rick Bowden doesn't exactly look like the guy to take the whole thing down: An ornery undercover cop whose IT abilities seem to begin and end with the call button on his cell phone, he's built for fieldwork, not tedious digital drudgery. But when his misbehavior during another sting operation lands him on desk duty, he hooks into the case.

Writer-director Tiller Russell (Netflix's The Night Stalker) presents both Ulbricht and Bowden as rogue antiheroes, different sides of the same coin; what are they if not renegades too brave and reckless to work within the system, man? Robinson (Love, Simon) manages to make the largely insufferable Russ not entirely unsympathetic, and Clarke, nostrils flaring like a bull, has a ball with Rick, who never met a motherboard he didn't want to Hulk smash.

But there's only so much real-world intrigue a crime committed almost entirely via ones and zeroes can entail, and the script's halfhearted attempts to make it all Mean Something feel more than a little callow in the end: The Social Network redrawn in weed and wispy start-up beards. Grade: C+

Related content: