Road to Nowhere isn’t just the title of Monte Hellman’s latest film; it’s also the plot synopsis for all his best work. Hellman, a low-budget director who never had a big box-office hit, first came to critical attention with his two mid-1960s “existential westerns,” Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting (both starring Jack Nicholson), as well as with his best-known film, the road movie and cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). The blacktop in question is truly a “road to nowhere,” traveled by two young men (played by singer James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson) in an old souped-up Chevy. The trip, interrupted by occasional car-races-for-money, eventually becomes a long-haul race to D.C. with the driver of a GTO. It’s a trip neither driver completes.

The nihilism of American car culture has never been more deeply explored; nothing seems to matter much to anyone, and there is neither tension nor joy in the races—the last of which famously ends with the movie projector seemingly breaking down and burning the film.

Now, in his first feature in 21 years (lack of financing for past projects is reportedly to blame), Hellman has made his finest work, a hall-of-mirrors masterpiece about moviemaking in which the diversions are more complex, and therefore more enticing. As Hellman himself, now 79, told an interviewer, “In a lot of ways I feel like Road to Nowhere is my first movie—everything else before it was a rehearsal.”

The imagery of Hellman’s earlier films has a hard-edged, almost flat toughness. One is stuck in a present in which nothing has any visible causes. Hellman’s rejection of any explanation for the state of things is part of what makes his work so strong. The road in Two-Lane Blacktop is treated as an irreducible given, for the characters and for the viewer. In Road to Nowhere, however, the scenes are full of inner life.

After a few brief frames in which a woman (later revealed to be the blogger who provided the story idea for the movie-within-the-movie) puts a DVD of Road to Nowhere into a laptop and begins playing it, we see a long take of Laurel (the alluring Shannyn Sossamon), who will play the lead in the movie, sitting on a bed. The DVD image on the laptop grows larger until it fills the screen, plunging the viewer in. The action is slow, suggesting real time, as Laurel paints and then dries her nails. The composition has a complexity that feels new for Hellman—and the eye, encouraged to wander, finds only barriers.

From there, Hellman cuts to Laurel’s hair waving in the blast of the dryer. Outside her window, the night is punctured by the headlights of an arriving car. A man emerges and, after a pause, there’s a gunshot. Laurel emerges, the credits roll, and we are in the labyrinth: the credits are not for Hellman’s movie, but for the movie that Hellman’s movie is about.

The director of that movie is Mitchell Haven (those shared initials are no coincidence) and its producer is Marissa Haven (Hellman’s daughter, Melissa Hellman, produced Road to Nowhere), and it is sometimes unclear whether we’re watching the movie within the movie or Hellman’s actual story.

Mitchell Haven’s (Tygh Runyan) movie is based on a real event: the disappearance of a North Carolina couple, Velma Duran and Rafe Taschen, who vanished (a possible double suicide) along with $100 million. Laurel has a shadowy connection to the real-life couple, and some suspect she either is Velma or is impersonating her.

The actual truth is less important than Hellman’s intermingling of illusion and reality. This is of course not a new idea, but in many other movies about moviemaking the illusion-reality theme is treated as liberatingly imaginative, or with a certain decipherable clarity (as in Hitchcock’s references to cinema in Rear Window and Vertigo). Here the point seems to be the construction of a world of illusions from which one cannot be extricated. The classic movies Mitchell watches admiringly on TV with Laurel intersect with Hellman’s plot, for example. “For me Road to Nowhere is a love poem to the movies,” Hellman told the Los Angeles Times.

There is also a devastating absurdity to his film and, by extension, the statement he’s making. This is true even of the lighter-hearted side of filmmaking that Hellman portrays. Haven does an interview with Variety‘s Peter Bart, sometimes answering falsely in ways that mirror real Hollywood BS (he claims he tries to avoid getting “involved” with his actresses, but will soon be sleeping with his lead.) At the end of the interview, the camera reveals a good deal more filmmaking equipment than one would imagine necessary. With this, Hellman adds to one’s sense of the interview as stage-managed fakery.

Hellman films an evocative scene with Mitchell and Laurel in a church in Rome, light streaming in from behind as they encounter a famous Michelangelo sculpture. He manages this with a small Canon consumer digital SLR, which he says allowed his crew to shoot scenes like this one without permits (they were mistaken for tourists). The romance that develops between Mitchell and Laurel is no grand love affair; Mitchell is candid about his primary objective for Laurel as a vehicle for completing his film. But their physical tenderness is nonetheless affecting, perhaps because it interjects a sensual element in stark contrast to the complex plot and severe compositions and editing.

As the film approaches its tragic conclusion, Hellman isolates three characters in separate, silent close-ups. Part of the power of this comes from the dearth of similar shots in the film; characters are not given the “freedom” that close-ups often imply. One of the movie clips Mitchell and Laurel watched earlier on, the famous chess game with death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, suddenly resonates with unusual force.

Viewers might want to pay close attention to the tiny details of the room visible in the opening shots. Where is the blogger? You’ll recognize the setting toward the film’s conclusion—and with this realization comes a degree of hopelessness. Moviemaking—even when it enchants viewers by playing with multiple levels of reality—is, in the end, a prison.

Editor’s note: This article has been amended to reflect the correct name of the character Marissa Haven.