I hated this movie for the first 20 minutes of it. Then slowly, slowly, I began to warm up to it, and then, about 40 minutes in, suddenly I loved it, and remained riveted to the grueling dramatic finale.
As with most Westerns, the most likeable and interesting character is the villain, here played by a genially badass Russell Crowe whose intellectual, sensitive side is repeatedly emphasized by lengthy quotations from the Bible and sketches of nature that he leaves on bushes like little calling cards of the ephemeral. Of course we are treated to the mind-numbingly dull hero, played by a typically angsty Christian Bale, trying to claim that Crowe, too, has goodness in him and the attendant reflections on whether good people can do bad things, but in this case, it's actually somewhat interesting, in that what makes Russell Crowe good is his ability to respect and recognize good (which basically boils down to integrity) in others. And by golly, we like him for his vigilante streak, which allows him to righteously slay the more irritating "good" guys who are in fact clearly scumbags.
The most annoying feature of this movie is its anachronisms. Goddamnit, couples just didn't discuss their relationships and mutual decision-making processes in the aftermath of the Civil War. No they did not. When Gretchen Mol was bitching about Christian Bale not consulting her opinion, I mentally added, "Gawd, life is so hard being a character in the Old West theme park! Ugh!" But there's something kind of charming about it too, perhaps, in that its the attempt to revitalize an old genre for new times?
One particularly amusing feature of the film, for me, was the way in which all of the action was immediately parsed and narrated. Russell Crowe blows away a few guys in rapid succession, and a minor character helpfully notes, "He's fast", thus making it perfectly clear for anyone who wasn't paying enough attention that this scene was meant to introduce them to a specific character trait. "Are y'all in a posse?" BAM BAM BAM. "I don't like posses." Check. All clear.
As my friend Ruchama pointed out, the plot is seriously flawed, because sure, Russell Crowe could have escaped whenever in the hell he wanted. BUT THEN THERE WOULD BE NO MOVIE. SO SHUT UP ALREADY.
Also amusing is the heavy dosage of homo-eroticism, common to Westerns but here so delightfully blatant that at time you find yourself thinking "God, just fuck already."
As a final note, Ben Foster, who plays the second fiddle villain, has one of the most fascinating faces I have ever seen. It's phenomenally vacant and expressionless and yet seething with emotion. It's amazing.
Anyhow, all in all, it's a kick in the pants. Worth seeing.