When it comes to movies, great books rarely end up in the right hands. Barring the occasional happy accident (such as, say, a New Zealand low-budget gore maven somehow managing to capture and refine the essence of a legendarily long-winded epic fantasy), the majority of bestseller-to-screen translations come off as ungainly, godforsaken beasts unable to connect with either newcomers or faithful fans.

No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 atypically lean and mean neo-western novel (and the duo's first feature in nearly four years) is, quite simply, the most perfect fusion of literary and filmmaking sensibilities since Polanski's hallowed Rosemary's Baby—and might even be a finer, rarer breed. Five minutes in, the damn thing already feels like a classic.

McCarthy's story eschews his mighty gift for extended biblical metaphor in favor of sheer pedal-to-the-metal storytelling: In early-'80s West Texas, a hard-luck Vietnam vet (Josh Brolin) discovers a briefcase full of cash from a drug deal gone wrong. He takes it and flees—a decision that places him at odds with a remorseless, implacable killer (Javier Bardem) set on clearing all accounts. Meanwhile, several steps behind, a small-town sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) surveys the rising body count and forms his own dark theories about the violent devolution of the species.

It's hard to think of a better cast for the job. Brolin, capping off one hell of a year (which included scene grand theft in both Grindhouse and American Gangster), here delivers a laconic marvel of largely nonverbal performance, with an aura of tragic inevitability that becomes more and more devastating with every scene. Jones, meanwhile, does service to what may be the novel's least flashy and most complex character: a decent but fundamentally weak man fully aware of his own inability to weather the coming storm. The big story, though, is Bardem, who creates one of the most inexplicably frightening figures in cinematic history. Sporting both a Prince Valiant haircut and a pneumatic cattle gun, he embodies a being that is utterly and completely Other. Note-perfect supporting work by Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, and Coen regular Stephen Root enhances the movie's infernal hum.

It's astounding, really, how the Coens manage to imprint their signatures on McCarthy's unmistakable universe—the flyblown wide-open spaces from Blood Simple here (cinematographer Roger Deakins has never been better, which is saying quite a bit), the affectionate ribbing of yokels and small-town nobility from Fargo and Raising Arizona there—without ever letting the seams show. (The most notable deviation from the book, a monumentally scary cat-and-mouse sequence set in a distinctly Barton Fink–ish hotel, won't be topped anytime soon for sheer bravura or atomic-clock timing.)

Such devotion to the source material may actually be the film's biggest stumbling block when it comes to audiences, as the Coens faithfully retain a late development that had at least this reviewer frantically skimming back through the chapters in fear that I missed something crucial the first or second time around. However baffling and frustrating it may seem in the moment though, in hindsight it becomes clear—McCarthy and the filmmakers are after bigger game than tidy resolutions: namely, a view of civilization facing apocalypse just around the next bend. Viewed in this gloomy, prophetic light, the author's subsequent nuclear winter saga The Road feels like the only possible progression from this work's glimpse of the ultimate Big Empty.

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So is it the Coens' best film, as the thunderous advance buzz indicated? Answer Hazy, Check Back Later. On a single viewing, at least, No Country for Old Men seems to just barely miss the perfect, hermetic brilliance of The Man Who Wasn't There or (especially) Miller's Crossing. On the other hand, McCarthy's rough edges might prove to be the traction the Coens needed to clamber out of their amiable Intolerable Cruelty/Ladykillers rut and finally fulfill the promise of their early work. Wherever its eventual place in the pantheon, one thing seems clear. Call it terrifying, stunningly bleak, humane, epic, intimate, darkly funny, deadly serious, or what have you: Whatever laudatory adjectives you throw its way are going to stick. recommended

Read Andrew Wright's interview with Josh Brolin.