(CNN) -- In "No Country for Old Men," the Coen brothers' masterly film of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel, a professional killer lugs around an ungainly contraption, a pressurized air canister with a strap, a hose and (at the end of it) a metal prod. It's the kind of stun gun they might use in a slaughterhouse.
Tommy Lee Jones is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in "No Country for Old Men."
It doesn't seem entirely practical but we get the impression that Anton Chigurh -- rhymes with "Sugar" -- appreciates its novelty value: the puzzlement still flickering in his victims' eyes as they're shocked away. Little things like this make his job worth doing.
Played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem, Chigurh is the most original bogeyman to bloody up the screen in a while, a badass with a goofball Prince Valiant haircut and minimal sense of humor.
In McCarthy's book he's less flesh and blood than the Epitome of Evil, a deadly ghost who's always a crime scene ahead of Texas sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). In previous Coen movies the role might have made a launching pad for one of John Turturro's comic grotesques, but Bardem doesn't goose it up anymore than he has to. He simply doles out death with implacable efficiency.
If there's time to share a philosophical insight before the deed is done, he's at your service. Sometimes, if there's nothing more at stake and the whim takes him, he might even flip a coin and let the fates decide.
As Walter Sobchak shrewdly observed in the Coens' "The Big Lebowski," it's the nihilists you have to be afraid of.
McCarthy's novel is a straight-up thriller interspersed with the somber musings of the otherwise laconic Ed Tom (a role that fits Jones like a glove). Masters of pastiche that they are, the Coens recognize the real thing when they see it. Save for that soul-searching -- now wisely restricted to a courageously anti-climactic last reel -- this is a markedly faithful adaptation. It's also the Coens' best movie since "Fargo."
The two films share some thematic similarities. They're both morality tales about small-town law officers struggling to comprehend the venality of career criminals -- and the relatively innocent bystanders who get caught up in the mess. Even the stark, bare landscapes are a kind of mirror image, albeit in a completely different temperature.
But though it's inflected with their cynical, deadpan humor, "No Country" is considerably more pessimistic about the way things are headed.
In the Coens' universe, a briefcase full of money is invariably the root of all evil, and so it is in McCarthy's story: Moss (Josh Brolin) happens across the aftermath of a massacre out in the desert, tracks down the bleeding corpse of the last man standing, and decides to cling to the nine-tenths of the law that talks about possession.
Then he does a fool thing. He returns to give a dying man a drink of water. It's potentially a fatal kindness; it puts Chigurh hot on his trail.
These early scenes out in a desert basin -- a handful of pickup trucks ringed by bullet-ridden bodies -- are shot by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins and edited by the Coens (under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) with tremendous composure. (It's not just the cowboy hats that make this the closest thing they've done to a Western.)
The patient tempo is a welcome change of pace after their increasingly frantic farces; they allow the gravity of the situation to sink in good and slow. Then they let the dogs loose for a ferocious chase scene.
Gripping from first frame to last, "No Country for Old Men" is consummate filmmaking, a steely reflection on the degradation of the culture. It's probably the most completely satisfying American movie of the year to date.