A former cop busted for crooked behavior is released from prison and returns home after six years, hoping to leave his life of crime behind and reconnect with his estranged family — but that life isn’t eager to let him go so easily. Director Evan Katz’s follow-up to 2013’s Cheap Thrills is a lean, mean neo-noir that addresses an age-old question: Do people ever really change? They can if they truly want to, but that’s not the case here.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (better known as Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones) stars as Joe Denton, an ex-cop released from prison after serving a stint for the attempted murder of a local District Attorney. He’s not remorseful, and he’s only likable because of Coster-Waldau’s low-key charisma in the role, and because in this too-small town Joe is swimming with much bigger and badder sharks — chief among them the local sheriff, played perfectly by Gary Cole.

It isn’t long before Joe finds himself caught between a rock and the hardest of places, forced back into the life he hoped he left behind bars. But it’s a little easier for Joe to submit to those dark whims when his wife and kids resist his (admittedly half-hearted) attempts to reconnect and he’s stuck living with his parents, played by all-time greats Jacki Weaver and Robert Forster — both of whom have plenty of experience in the crime genre.

Katz and co-writer Macon Blair, working from the novel by David Zelsterman, take a familiar set-up and give it some new teeth, as Joe reluctantly accepts a job in which the only payday is the promise of an all-too-brief moment of rest before someone else comes knocking with another dirty deed that needs doing. Complicating matters is his new love interest, played by the excellent Molly Parker of Deadwood fame, subverting the usual genre tropes as a perceptive nurse with a mysterious past of her own who isn’t content to be a passive bystander.

Coster-Waldau is a pro at playing narcissists, but in Small Crimes he brings additional pathos to the role of Joe. The film’s title is never directly addressed, but it elicits thematic contemplation throughout as these seemingly minor deeds escalate, becoming part of a larger, nastier fabric that blankets the entire town. There are no small crimes, not really.

Katz made an assured directorial debut with Cheap Thrills, an intimate dark comedy that hinged entirely on escalation — in that case, a series of dares. Small Crimes is a solid follow-up that’s more dramatic than its predecessor with the same mean streak. By the end, Joe’s pathetic life becomes devastatingly pitiful, backed into a dark corner from which the obvious escape seems impossible. And perhaps it is for guys like Joe, who live in small towns with and commit small crimes.

Small Crimes opens on Joe’s face, the camera pulling out as he meets with the parole board about his impending release and quickly establishes himself as an unrepentant type who probably shouldn’t be handed so many opportunities — but men like him often are. The final shot is a beautifully subtle reversal, the camera zooming in on Joe’s face as his story ends, and we’re left to contemplate the futility of that initial question: Do people ever really change? It might not matter when all is said and done.