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We live in a world dominated by the internet. You can do almost everything online in 2021: Shop for clothes and food, communicate with both loved ones and total strangers, even plan an attack on the nation's capital if you so choose. One of the first websites to really explore how much could be done on the internet, laws and morals be damned, was the Silk Road website that from about 2011-2014 allowed savvy users to buy drugs or other illegal goods and services via the dark web and then-new cryptocurrency Bitcoin. The upcoming Lionsgate film Silk Road explores the story of this trailblazing website's rise and fall from the perspective of the site's founder Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) and the grizzly DEA agent tracking him down, Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke).
Bowden and Ulbricht stand at opposite ends of a generational divide. In some ways Silk Road plays like an even more criminal version of The Social Network, because like Mark Zuckerberg, Ulbricht was still in college when he conceived the website that he would become known for.
"He doesn't strike you as a typical criminal mastermind. He seems like someone more at home in Silicon Valley than in the black market," Robinson tells EW. "Learning about his story was really interesting and unexpected. He was this kid from Texas who had a pretty typical upbringing with a middle-class family, but was a nonconformist with big ideas, and he got super into libertarianism. In a lot of ways, Silk Road was his thesis project on small government, no taxes, and taking a laissez-faire attitude towards everything. The philosophy being that people have free will, and they should be able to indulge themselves in whatever they decide is best for them."
Robinson continues, "whether that's right or wrong, to start from where he started and end up where he ended, clearly it very quickly got out of control."
Ulbricht's opposite number is someone who also let his life get out of control. When the film opens, Bowden is returning to active duty in the DEA after a long stint undercover that has left him scarred and alienated from his colleagues, not to mention his family. He soon finds himself shunted off to the fledgling "cybercrime" division, just in time for Silk Road to start becoming infamous.
"This man had been undercover in high-level drug busts and operations, and he went too deep for too long, and got hooked. Now there's no place for him on the force when he comes back," Clarke says. "Policing is changing and evolving, and he just finds himself put out to pasture. He's got to see out his time so he can retire gracefully and have a pension, and he ends up working on cybercrime. But he's still got that basic instinct of what a policeman is, about how we need to catch a bad guy. He's still doing the same thing, but trying to reconcile, 'where do I find my place?'"
Bowden may have trouble getting the hang of computers and fancy new technology, but he knows how to bust heads and work sources. He knows that behind every dark web-connected computer is a human being typing at a keyboard, and it's these humans Bowden starts going after in the hopes of finding his way to the mastermind.
"Even though what he's doing is, I guess, fundamentally wrong, he's alive within that world of dealing with criminals, getting them to talk, trying to try to tie up the loose ends, and take notes," Clarke says. "I mean, Silk Road was a huge organization in terms of the money and the number of people involved. It was Amazon for the dark side of the web."
Silk Road is set to be released in theaters and on VOD and digital on Feb. 19.