Two people, a husband and a wife have been murdered. Will Graham stands in their house trying to determine what happened there. He thinks he has it. Essentially, he reconstructs how the husband and wife were killed through his creative imagination. He pretends he's the killer and runs to the door of the house and kicks it open. When the husband starts coming down the stairs, Will shoots the man, killing him within seconds. The wife is fumbling with the alarm, but is also shot within a few more seconds. The killer misses all the essential arties allowing the woman to remain conscious for a while before dying.
Back in real time, Will examines reports from the alarm company. It turns out that there was a false alarm last week at the house. The murderer tapped the phone line and heard the alarm code password.
Now, Will is lecturing at FBI Academy in Virginia. He is recounting the case to a class full of students. As the class leaves, Dr. Jack Crawford, the head of the Behavioral Sciences Unit asks him to review a case. Turns out that Will is not a very social person, being somewhat autistic. But the teaching position allows for lecturing, not many questions. Dr. Crawford says there have been a series of girls abducted. Dr. Crawford says however he is covering the tracks, he needs time – a full weekend. Victims number 1 to 7 are dead. Victim number 8 doesn't have much time to live. The girls are roughly the same age and height. They're all very similar in appearance. Will notes that each girl is a golden ticket to the murderer.
Duluth, Minnesota: Dr. Crawford and Will talk to the parents of the eight abductee. The parents are obviously worried having heard of the serial abductions. Will suggests that the murderer took the girl from her own home after cornering her somewhere. Dr. Crawford calls in and says the house is now a crime scene. The father and Will head up to the girl's room. They find the girl, but she is dead, just returned to her bed as if she was sleeping. Will does his thing, retracing the girl's most probably footsteps from that day. He imagines that the murderer suffocated her in her bed. Will is interrupted by members of Dr. Crawford's team, Beverly Katz and Aaron Abrams. Dr. Crawford also soon comes into the room. They discuss the person who did this. Will thinks that murderer was apologetic about the murder after he found an antiseptic placed over the girl's wounds.
Will flies back to Virginia and finds a dog while driving home. It appears to be a stray and brings the dog home, where we see that he has quite a few of them living with him. One of Will's issues is that he has an active imagination and this causes his dreams to be quite explicit. We see him have a dream of the dead girl he was investigating. The next day, Crawford wants to know what kind of criminal they are dealing with. Will can't give Crawford an answer. Will says the criminal likes the victims and is performing mercy killings. Meanwhile, Beverly finds something of the girl's shirt. A small piece of metal sourced back to a scrap yard.
Crawford seeks out Dr. Alana Bloom to find out more about Will. They agree that Will's main drive is fear. Crawford is wondering whether Will can go back into the field. Bloom doesn't think he should, but Crawford is willing to keep an eye on him. While observing the team in the autopsy room, Will has another vision, this time of the girl impaled on deer antlers. Will says she was mounted on the wall and this caused her death. The team then realizes that the girl's liver was removed and then sewn back in. The girl has liver cancer and therefore the meat was not good enough for, as Will points out, eating.
Baltimore, Maryland: Dr. Hannibal Lecter counsels a distressed patient. Crawford interrupts to talk to Lecter and enters his office. Crawford takes note of Lecter's artistic abilities earning him a position at John Hopkins. Dr. Bloom referred Lecter to Crawford regarding the topic of social exclusion. He brings Lecter to Virginia in order to help with the profiling of the murderer and to help with Will. Lecter immediately picks up on Will's social problems. After Will leaves to give a lecture, Lecter states that Will has what's called "pure empathy". He can assume anyone's point of view. Lecter then states that he can help with this so-called cannibal case.
Another victim is found. This time, Crawford finds it difficult to support Will's theory that the criminal loves women. The girl is out in a field, impaled on antlers, and her lungs have been removed. We see, interspersed with the body find, Dr. Lecter cutting up the raw lungs. Will thinks that this is a copycat killer since it differs heavily from the previous murders. Meanwhile, Lecter enjoys a meal.
Later that night Will has a vision with a deer. The next morning, Lecter arrives at Will's house, with food he prepared. Lecter says he is very careful about the food he eats, so he prepares most of his food. After breakfast, Will and Lecter head to a construction site where they think the piece of scrap metal came from. A pipe shredder was used to create the small piece of metal. Will picks up on an employee that left no address in his file and misses work for days at a time. While Will packs up this employee's file among other things he has found, Lecter calls the suspect employee, Garrett, to warn him that "they know". Will heads over to Garrett's home. As Will steps out of the car, Garrett throws his wife out of the house, with her neck cut. Will retrieves his weapon and enters the house as Lecter watches. Will reaches the kitchen where he finds Garrett holding his daughter hostage with a knife across her neck. Will shoots Garrett but Garrett ends up cutting his daughter's neck. Blood spills on the floor as the daughter gasps. Lecter, quiet and stiff, grabs hold of the girl's neck to stop the bleeding. An ambulance takes the daughter away, alive.
Crawford tries to find Will the next day but Dr. Bloom is covering for him. Will goes to see Garrett's daughter in the hospital. Lecter is already there in the hospital room, asleep but holding her hand.