Ahhh, the Western. One tiny slice of American history, a small, isolated place and time - and it's provided more to Hollywood than, arguably, any other.
I think the reason hinges on its very isolation. Out West, the order of society is figured out by a select few characters, acting in an idiosyncratic way. If we, the audience, get to know and understand the characters who make the rules, we know and understand the whole fabric of society, for the duration of the movie.
And then, of course, the mighty obstacles to mere survival, the desperation that tends to provide much-craved character motivation. It's hard to imagine a suburban wage slave driven to the kind of primal desperation you see in Christian Bale's eyes here. So the conflicts tend to have high stakes, and feel epic.
I learned from this movie, that giving a character something iconic, like (let us say) a black hat, then taking that iconic thing away from him, can produce a most excellent feeling when that aspect of his character is restored.
I learned that character traits don't necessarily have to be particularly developed to serve their purpose. Why does Russel Crowe draw people? He just does. It's his thing. And his character feels nuanced for that. Lesser writers have a habit of only including character traits that directly affect the plot. It's sort of a running joke on Curb Your Enthusiasm, that absolutely everything mentioned, even in passing, will come around to a punchline at some point in the episode.There is not a part of those characters' lives that does not serve the Comedy. These guys are different, and I like 'em better for it.
I learned that characters should deserve their fates, especially if you're going to feel sympathy for a dude who kills folk right and left. There is always one specific thing that triggers a death in this movie. Heroic characters do something awesome, and then get shot. Less heroic characters have a less heroic final action.
I think in movies, your last impression of a character is at least as important as your first impression. After all, that's the point where you, the audeince, have gotten to know them. In The Grand Illusion, you don't think of Eric von Stroheim as the hotshot fighter pilot - you think of him as the prison guard, the broken man. That's what he becomes - that's what you're left with. That's what lingers in your mind.
First impressions, I think, are overrated generally, but particularly in movies. While I would never push for a lamer character introduction, (unless of course there was a powerful trade-off), it's important to remember that we're here to see change. The most an early portrait of a character can be is a kickass "before" snapshot. If we see something to like about the character, as audiences we have an enormous potential for forgiveness. Look at Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction - he's treated as an enormous, scary black asshole for most of the film, but all it takes is a little rape, and all of a sudden he's a human being.
I need to watch that movie again. I'm certain I could learn a lot from it.