A retired FBI agent with psychological gifts is assigned to help track down "The Tooth Fairy", a mysterious serial killer; aiding him is imprisoned criminal genius Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter.
In June 1980, during a symphony orchestral performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Baltimore, famous Lithuanian-American forensic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter winces at several wrong notes played by one of the flutists on stage. Later, in his townhouse at 5 Chandler Square, he hosts an elegant dinner party for the symphony board, where the main subject of conversation is the disappearance of the same flutist. He then serves the guests a delicious meal, and when asked about the amuse bouche, he says with a smile "If I tell you, I'm afraid you won't even try it." much to everyone's amusement.
After the guests leave, Lecter is visited by Will Graham, a young gifted FBI agent with whom he has been working on the psychological profile of a local serial killer nicknamed "the Chesapeake Ripper", who removes parts of the victims seemingly keeps them as trophies. They discuss the matter in Lecter’s office, where Graham theorises that their profile is all wrong; after learning that flesh taken from the back of a roasted chicken is known as "oysters", he received a flash of the Ripper’s third victim, Darcy Taylor, who was missing flesh from her back. The "trophies" that were removed were all used in cooking, convincing him that the killer is actually a cannibal. Lecter notes Graham's abilities as an "eidektor", one with extreme imagination and visual memory combined with pure empathy. Graham is puzzled that Lecter, an expert in his field, didn't come up with the cannibal idea before.
After apologising for seemingly not having faith in Lecter, and the case getting to him, Lecter leaves the room to get Graham's coat. Behind the doctor’s back, however, Graham scans the souvenirs on the shelf and looks through a copy of Larousse Gastronomique, noticing that an entry of Ris de Veau was notated as "sweetbreads". As it dawns on him that Lecter is the Chesapeake Ripper, the doctor walks in from behind and stabs Graham in the abdomen with a linoleum knife, apologizing that the game must come to an end. He prepares to eat Graham's heart as a tribute to his courage, but Graham manages to stab Lecter in the abdomen with arrows before shooting him down. Receiving a call from Graham, FBI agents and Maryland State Troopers arrive and apprehend Lecter, who is subsequently found insane at his trial and sentenced to nine consecutive life terms at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Graham recovers from his wound at a mental institution and retires from the FBI, having been severely traumatized by the experience.
In 1986, Graham has found self-imposed retreat at his beachfront house in Marathon, Florida, where he lives peacefully with his wife Molly and son Josh, making a living fixing boat motors. One day in April, he is visited by his ex-boss, Special Agent Jack Crawford, and they discuss the recent reports on another serial killler who has appeared on the scene. Nicknamed "the Tooth Fairy", this killer has stalked and murdered two seemingly random families of five in their homes during sequential full moons, first killing the Jacobi family in Birmingham on the night of February 25th, and then the Leeds family in Atlanta on the night of March 28th. Both crimes have similar circumstances: the killer smashes the bathroom mirrors, wears latex gloves to avoid leaving prints, and has size-11 shoes and AB positive blood. Hoping to speed things up, and capture the Fairy before his next attack in three weeks, Crawford pleads for Graham to check out the crime scenes and look at the evidence to provide another point of view. Graham is reluctant at first, but changes his mind after viewing family photos of the victims, believing the death of another family to be an unbearable burden on his conscience. Although a reluctant Molly strongly objects, he decides to accept the free-lance assignment while assuring her "this one will never see me or know my name... The cops will have to take him down, not me."
At the Leeds house that night, Graham closely examines the evidence throughout, starting with the back porch and door, where the Tooth Fairy gained entry using a glass cutter for the glass pane nearest to the doorknob. Noticing a dog bed on the porch, he records that nobody heard barking on the night the family was killed, and it was never mentioned in the case file. He goes upstairs to the blood-splattered master bedroom, and records that the intruder first cut Charles Leeds’ throat with a buck knife, then shot his wife Valerie in the stomach with a silencer, before proceeding to the children’s bedroom to shoot them in their beds. The killer then dragged the children’s bodies into the master bedroom, where he gave "extra attention" to Mrs. Leeds. The smashed bathroom mirror has shards that were taken out and inserted into the orbital sockets of the victims, but the reason why is puzzling to Graham. Later, surrounding himself with crime scene photos in his Sheraton hotel room, Graham has a flash of sudden insight and answer to his question; the mirror pieces make each child’s dead eyes look alive, so they can act as an audience when the Fairy touched their mother. Traces of talcum powder found on Mrs. Leeds’ right inner thigh means that the killer took his latex gloves off when he made physical contact with her, and there is a possibility that he also touched her eyes. Graham phones Crawford and asks for latent prints on her eyes, even her corneas.
In an Atlanta Police Department briefing the next morning, the Tooth Fairy’s teeth (with a unique bite signature) are observed, derived from bite marks on Mrs. Leeds. Graham announces his findings on the murders; Mrs. Leeds and Samantha Jacobi were the primary targets, the attacks were not random as the killer was never out of control, but were highly organized and the women carefully chosen. The reason and method of choice remains unknown (as both women lived in two neighboring states and never met), but there is a connection between them that needs to be found out, and used to save lives. When asked why the killer won’t stop his rampage, Graham replies "because it makes him God. Would you give that up?". According to Atlanta police chief R. J. Springfield, the family pets were absent in both murder scenes; the Leeds’ dog had suffered lethal injuries the night before and had to be taken to the vet, and Graham suggests a search of the Jacobi’s backyard for a buried cat. Also, a partial thumb print is found on Mrs. Leeds’ left eye. Outside the building, Graham and Crawford are confronted by Freddy Lounds, a sleazy reporter for the tabloid National Tattler who covered the conviction of Lecter, and now sniffing for leads on the Tooth Fairy story. Still angry at Lounds for sneaking into the institution and taking pictures of his knife wound, Graham goes right up into his face and tells him to stop interfering.
The two agents stop to have coffee at a nearby diner, where Crawford congratulates his protege on his find, saying it was very good work. Graham, however, is convined that good work means "seeing it all the way through and catching the guy, and I can’t do that"; what he had been able to determine about the Tooth Fairy were just "broad strokes" because the killer has "no face to me" - a quote he said about a serial killer he investigated before Lecter, nicknamed "the Minnesota Shrike". When Crawford points out that Graham had no trouble unmasking the Shrike as Minneapolis pipe threader Garret Jacob Hobbs, Graham denies it; most of his previous successes have been achieved through his insightful collaborations with Lecter, who has served as a resource (and shortcut) which they could possibly utilize for the rest of the case. At Crawford’s suggestion, Graham visits the Maryland State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where the asylum chief administrator Dr. Frederick Chilton discusses how impenetrable Lecter has proven to be in psychological testing. Desperate to crack Lecter‘s enigma, and asks Graham how did he catch Lecter. Graham merely replies “I let him kill me”.
On their meeting, Lecter notices the aftershave that Graham wore in court. Both men have an intense conversation about the case and their own history, Lecter remarking the reason that Graham caught him is that they are both alike. Lecter gives insight into the Tooth Fairy, saying that the killer probably believes himself to be disfigured, as the Tooth Fairy smashes the mirrors in the houses, and that the full moon is likely to play a part in the murders.
Meanwhile, the Tooth Fairy is introduced as Francis Dolarhyde, the technical services manager of a video processing firm in St. Louis called Chromalux, who suffers from a form of split personality disorder. He worships Lecter, after learning of his crimes. Calling his other personality "The Great Red Dragon" (because of his obsession with the William Blake painting, "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun"), Dolarhyde is unable to control his violent and sexual urges, which turn him into a dangerous serial mass killer. These conditions were born from the systematic child abuse he suffered at the hands of his grandmother and step family, and he believes that his murders will help him manifest into the Dragon. Graham, on the other hand, continues to run into complications in his investigation. To complicate things further, Dolarhyde sends a fan letter to Lecter, which the former provides the latter with Graham's home address in code, endangering Graham. Molly and Josh are evacuated to a remote farm belonging to Crawford's brother. Graham discovers the secret communication and tries to intercept it without Lecter's knowledge, but the doctor is quick to realize that the Feds are onto him and his protegé, and humiliates the authorities by upping the stakes: in return for his help in capturing the Tooth Fairy, he requests a first-class meal in his cell and having his book privileges returned. Lecter gets his wish and raises a toast to the CCTV cameras, watched by Dr Chilton and Barney. Chilton is furious, while Barney watches in amusement.
Hoping to lure Dolarhyde into a trap, Graham gives Lounds an interview in which he gives disparaging details abut what the FBI believes the killer to be: impotent with females, sexually abuses the male victims and a pathetic loser, with Dr Lecter outraged that such a killer is on the same level as himself, whereas in fact they consider him cunning and highly dangerous. This provokes Dolarhyde, but instead of going immediately after Graham, he kidnaps Lounds from the Tattler's office building in Chicago, and forces him to recant his allegations on a taped recording. Dolarhyde then attacks and bites off Lounds' lips before putting him in a wheelchair, setting him on fire and pushing the chair down the street where it comes to rest outside the building. At about the same time, Dolarhyde falls in love with a blind co-worker, Reba McClane. He becomes very shy and tentative around Reba, but she senses his attraction to her and she is likewise attracted to him. Dolarhyde takes Reba to his large old home in the woods and they spend the night together. In the morning, Dolarhyde wakes to find Reba gone from the bed and he rushes around, frantic to find her. She was outside in the garden, but he was concerned she may have been snooping in the room where he kept his diary and a poster of the Red Dragon.
Dolarhyde's new-found love conflicts with his "Dragon" alter. He senses that the Dragon wants the woman, and Dolarhyde vigorously resists the demand. He becomes so upset, that he grabs a sawed-off shotgun and places it in his mouth, preferring to kill himself rather than turning over Reba to the Red Dragon (by murdering and "changing" her). After taking Reba to her home, Dolarhyde attempts to stop the Dragon's "possession" of him. He believes that he must dominate the Dragon by consuming the original watercolor painting, so he goes to the Brooklyn Museum, asks to see the painting, then knocks out the female employee who took him to a back room to see the painting. He immediately shreds the painting and starts shoving it into his mouth, eating it. Another female employee comes into the room and Dolarhyde attacks her. He doesn't kill either woman, but he escapes.
Graham eventually realizes that the killer knew the layout of his victims' houses from their home videos, which the killer could only have seen if he worked for the home video editing company that transfers home movies to video cassette, which reveals the company as Chromalux. Crawford and Graham go to firm and interview the manager. After describing the person they are looking for (the museum employees had provided a description), the manager recognizes the person as Dolarhyde, and explains to Graham and Crawford that Dolarhyde's job gives him access to all home movies passing through the company.
Dolarhyde happens to be coming into the office at about that time, sees Graham, turns around and hurries out, knowing the Feds are getting close to finding him. He decides to go see Reba one last time, but he finds her saying goodnight to another co-worker of theirs, Ralph Mandy, who discourages her about being so close to Dolarhyde and start going out with him. Enraged, Dolarhyde wastes no time in shooting and killing Ralph, as he is walking down the walk from Reba's house, then goes to the door and accosts Reba, placing a cloth with chloroform over her mouth, rendering her unconscious. He takes her to his house and brings her back to consciousness, upset that she was betraying him. He tells her that he’s going to shoot her and himself so that the Red Dragon can't have her, but she begs him to let her go, or to run and take her with him. Instead, Dolarhyde spreads gasoline around and sets it ablaze, then takes the shotgun and points it at Reba. But, when he realizes he can't do it, he repositions the gun and pulls the trigger. Blood spatters all over Reba's face and she screams. She crawls forward and puts her hand on the open wound of the body, then begins trying to find a way out of the house.
Crawford, Graham and many other police officers come roaring up to the house and meet Reba walking towards them. She tells them what happened, and as Graham attempts to go into the house, it explodes in a huge fireball. He is given Dolarhyde's diary/scrapbook, which was in a steel safe and thus spared from the flames. The book details the killer's tragic childhood and obsessions with murder. Despite himself, Graham feels pity for Dolarhyde, who he realizes was made a monster, not born one. Word comes back from the forensic pathologist that the body from the Dolarhyde house was not that of Dolarhyde’s; It was actually Ralph Mandy, who had been on a week's vacation, therefore no one had missed him. That meant that Dolarhyde was still alive. Crawford wastes no time in calling Graham, who is at his home with his wife and son, relaxing and telling them about what read from Dolarhyde’s diary. Graham enters the house, looking for Josh to get him to come outside and sit with his parents, and notices almost immediately that the mirror in the entry area had been broken. He hears Crawford leaving a message on the phone, informing him that Dolarhyde is not yet dead, and goes to the kitchen to arm himself with two sharp knives. He puts one under his belt in back and holds the other at the ready. He goes upstairs as quietly as possible, seeing more broken mirrors.
As Graham slowly pushes open the door to Josh's bedroom, he sees his son standing there, with Dolaryhyde holding one arm around Josh and his other hand holding a piece of broken mirror pressed against Josh's skin, near his right eye. After noticing that Josh has wet his pants, Graham, in order to provoke Dolarhyde, uses insults at Josh, pretending to be disgusted at wetting himself. Dolarhyde is infuriated and flings Josh to the side and attacks Graham. They struggle and during the fight, Dolarhyde slashes Graham across his abdomen. Graham then pulls the knife from his belt and jams it into Dolarhyde's left thigh. Graham runs and ushers his son into the master bedroom, locking the door. Graham tells Josh to hide under the bed and then goes to his closet and retrieves a handgun, readying it to fire when Dolarhyde finishes crashing through the door. However, Dolarhyde stops trying to break in.
Graham edges forward and looks under the door. He hears his wife calling out and watches as she appears at the top of the stairs. As she makes her way down the hallway, he sees Dolarhyde step out behind her. He shouts at Molly to get down, which she does, and Graham begins firing his pistol through the door. Dolarhyde also has a pistol and returns fire. They hit each other several times and both go down. Molly pushes through the broken wood of the door and unlocks it, rushing to Graham's side, as he lay gasping for breath with blood bubbling from his mouth. Graham says to Molly, "Shoot him." Molly turns to see Dolarhyde struggling to sit up. She hurriedly grabs Graham's pistol off the floor, steps forward into the hall, and, just as Dolarhyde is bringing his gun back up, she puts a shot right through his forehead, then another in his cheek. She rushes back into the bedroom to comfort Josh.
After recovering, Graham receives a letter from Dr. Lecter, which bids him well and hopes that he isn't too "disfigured" by his encounters with Dolarhyde and himself. Graham reads the letter while he's out on his sailboat. He crumples the letter up and throws it away. Dr. Frederick Chilton informs Lecter that there is a young woman from the FBI waiting to speak with him. Lecter thinks for a minute, looks up, and asks what her name is.
- Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter
- Edward Norton as Will Graham
- Ralph Fiennes as Francis Dolarhyde
- Alex D. Linz as 5-year-old Francis Dolarhyde
- Harvey Keitel as Jack Crawford
- Emily Watson as Reba McClane
- Mary-Louise Parker as Molly Graham
- Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddy Lounds
- Anthony Heald as Dr. Frederick Chilton
- Ken Leung as Lloyd Bowman
- Frankie Faison as Barney Matthews
- Tyler Patrick Jones as Josh Graham
- Frank Whaley as Ralph Mandy
- Ellen Burstyn as Grandma Dolarhyde