Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Charles J. Maland

Committee Members

Christine Holmlund, Mary Papke, Allen Dunn


This dissertation fills a gap in the scholarship on the films of Terrence Malick by providing a historically based and grounded auteur study that provides a comprehensive examination of his formal and thematic concerns in Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), and with a coda on The Tree of Life (2011).

This auteur study draws on critical approaches to formalism, Hollywood genres, American cultural myths, and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Each chapter that addresses a specific film opens by historically situating Malick and that film within an industrial and production context that has evolved in response to varying social and cultural forces. Each chapter then includes a close formalist analysis of the film’s narrative and stylistic elements. The focus of the study is an examination of how Malick uses Heideggerian philosophy as an instrument to critique American cultural myths, which he engages by drawing on and revising popular Hollywood genres.

Malick’s ontological aesthetic is integral to his critique of American cultural myths, and is influenced by the philosophy of Heidegger, about which he has an intimate understanding, having translated and written an introduction to Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons before becoming a filmmaker. His aesthetic makes use of a decidedly Heideggerian critique of what Heidegger once called our “destitute times,” in which a Western mode of self-assertion and instrumental thinking has distorted the world, transforming it into objects to be manipulated and consumed. In this mode of self-assertion, says Heidegger and Malick’s films, human beings have become forgetful of what it means to be human, forgetful of a relation to Being, which connects all human beings. While Heidegger identifies the ancient Greeks as the originators of this Western perspective, Malick engages Heidegger’s work by extending Heidegger’s critique of destitute modern times to American culture and to the cultural myths conveyed by the Hollywood film industry.

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