No Country for Old Men is the closest the great Cormac McCarthy has come to writing genre fiction. It’s the story of a clueless Texas schnook (played here by an excellent Josh Brolin) who stumbles across $2 million in illicit drug money, absconds with it, and then thinks he can outmaneuver the psychopathic mob enforcer (a terrifying Javier Bardem) sent to get the dough back. What takes the book and film to another level, however, are the philosophical musings of Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an old-school county sheriff who finds his peaceful rural bailiwick awash in a form of mindless, all-encompassing violence he has never seen before. Nearing retirement age, Bell soon comes to believe that the world has moved down a slippery slope from civility to outright savagery, a change he is totally unprepared for—hence the title of the book.

Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have taken this material and adapted it with skill and reverence. On one level, No Country for Old Men, although set in the present day, plays like a classic western, one filled with quirky characters (a Coen trademark) and numerous shootouts. But it’s also a Greek tragedy of sorts, dealing with issues like greed and the increasing brutalization of social interaction. Thanks to Roger Deakins’ fine photography, it’s also a portrait of an out-of-the-way corner of the U.S. (southwestern Texas, along the Mexican border) invaded by outside forces it cannot possibly control.

And if nothing else, No Country for Old Men should finally make Javier Bardem a star in this country. His portrayal of Anton Chigurh, an almost superhuman assassin without a conscience and his own strange set of morals, is absolutely frightening and mesmerizing at the same time. He’s more a force of nature than a flesh-and-blood human, whose creepy affect and totally outré Prince Valiant haircut are signifiers of the psychosis within. The performance is so malevolently fine-tuned that one sequence in particular, in which a deadpan Bardem forces an aging storekeeper to flip a coin to determine if he’ll live or die, seems destined to join Robert De Niro’s “You talkin’ to me?” scene in the creepazoid hall of fame.

That said, No Country for Old Men is not a perfect film. At 122 minutes, it runs a little long, and the ending is a bit flat and unsatisfying. But in adapting this most un-Coen-like material, the brothers have come up with a winner: an action film with a serious philosophical undertone.