Through a series of flashbacks, Donna (Smith) tries to tell her son Denny (Lascher) why she murdered her husband Dennis (Johnson). When she returns to her hometown in Colorado from California for the summer, Donna is set up on a date with former aerobics instructor and current police officer Dennis. She immediately falls in love with him, and quickly meets his teenage stepdaughter Patty (Swank). Patty is still upset over the death of her mother to an allergic reaction, especially because they were quarreling when they last saw each other. Sympathizing for the girl, Donna agrees not to return to California. To take care of Patty, she moves in with Dennis and become engaged with him shortly after.
The romance is short-lived, though. After being insulted at the gym, Dennis starts to shoot himself up with steroids, causing violent outbursts. One night, he is too unrested to sleep, and orders Donna to leave the room. He then lifts some weights in the middle of the night, and violently orders Donna to leave when she asks him to come back to bed. Scared by her husband, she turns to her sister Susie (McCormick), but she is too vulnerable when he begs her to take him back. They are married shortly after, but during the ceremony, Dennis already has another outburst against her, causing Donna to spend her wedding night in fear. Patty later explains to her that his violence behavior is caused by the steroids, which he even uses at work to catch criminals in an unorthodox way.
When Donna finds out that she is pregnant, she explains to Dennis that she cannot live in fear and begs him to stop using the steroids. He does not keep his promise, and starts to act violent again, even going as far as raping his wife while their newborn is crying in the other room. She packs her bags to leave with their son Denny and Patty, but Dennis orders her to stay inside and beats her up with a belt. She contacts his friend Jerry (Gianopoulos) to persuade Dennis to stop taking steroids, but Jerry only tells Dennis of their conversation. Dennis threatens to kill her or Susie if she ever goes behind his back again, and then rapes her a second time.
Five years later, Donna focuses her energy on raising Denny (Lawrence), and Dennis becomes obsessed with the gym. When Patty one day admits that she is pregnant, Dennis blames Donna and forces her to tell Patty that she is disgusted by her and to order her to leave the house forever. Deciding that she has had enough, Donna flees with Denny to a nearby local shelter, but Dennis picks her up there and threatens to kill her, priding that he will get away with murder. Donna suspects that he might have killed his first wife, and scared for her life, she pays Eddie Greenwell (Midwood) to murder Dennis. With the help from his brother Charlie (Kristofer), Eddie shoots Dennis dead when he parks his car in his driveway one night. Charlie's girlfriend (Kelly) eventually gives the brothers up to the police, and they in turn confess Donna's involvement.
In her conversation in prison with now grown-up Denny, Donna says that her trial was a media circus, and her only worry was if she would be separated from her son. The jury finds Donna guilty of conspiracy for first-degree murder and she receives a jail sentence of 40 years. Donna tells Denny that she would do it again if she had to, because she believes that she would have died if she had not done it. Denny, now going away to college in San Francisco, tells her that he has resented her for not having been there when he grew up, but assures her that he never stopped loving her.Jaclyn Smith as Donna Yaklich
Brad Johnson as Dennis Yaklich
Hilary Swank as Patty Yaklich
David Lascher as Denny Yaklich - age 18
Carolyn McCormick as Susie
Andrew Lawrence as Denny Yaklich - age 5
Ramsay Midwood as Eddie Greenwell
Jason Kristofer as Charlie Greenwell
David Gianopoulos as Jerry
David Byron as Mike
Lisa Robin Kelly as Charlie Greenwell's girlfriend
The film is largely based on interviews with Donna Yaklich. Real-life Dennis Yaklich was gunned down by two men in his Colorado driveway in 1985. The perpetrators were hired by Donna Yaklich. She was sentenced to 40 years in prison, but was released in 2009 after serving 18 years. The film has been criticized for fictionalizing the events and the way that the characters were portrayed. Vanessa Yaklich, one of Dennis and Barbara's children, not present in the movie, has spoken out about the film and Donna's claims to be an "outright lie".
Shooting began on November, 8 and concluded on December 3, 1993. In order to prepare for her role, Jaclyn Smith had phone conversations with Donna Yaklich. Smith attributed that the role was "definitely not sophisticated and slick"; she sometimes received real beatings on camera from her co-star Brad Johnson, because "it had to be real".
The film received poor reviews. It was aired opposite a made-for-TV film with a similar story; Lies of the Heart: The Story of Laurie Kellogg (1994). A reviewer for People conducted that "Cries Unheard is only just better than Lies of the Heart."
Reviewer for Variety laid out his problems with the film: "First problem is credibility. The Smith-Johnson portrayal of the Yaklich courtship is flatly unbelievable; Smith appears much too chic and socially at opposite ends to fall for a greaseball like Johnson’s weightlifter. The vidpic’s second big problem is that, once ensconsed as his marital slave and punching bag, it’s not made clear why the wife is too afraid to run away but not too afraid to conspire to kill him. Viewer impatience with Smith’s mind-numbingly foolish homemaker is almost as great as the repulsion for Johnson’s hulking, gun-happy husband. In short, without a sympathetic, let alone empathetic wife figure, director Armand Mastroianni can’t overcome a grueling, almost counterproductive picture."
In its short review for The Gadsden Times, John Martin called the film "too sensational" and showed his dissatisfaction with contents, calling out for an effective way to help women get out of domestic violence, instead of showing "two hours of terror".