Clarice Starling, FBI trainee, runs through the woods on a not-so-snowy evening—and we don't see any lambs anywhere.
She's summoned by Jack Crawford, head of the FBI's Behavior Science division, and given a task: interview Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter. No, the FBI isn't hiring a chef; they're hoping Dr. Lecter—a psychiatrist who kills and eats people in his spare time—can give them clues to the identity of a new serial killer, nicknamed Buffalo Bill, who's been skinning women.
After dealing with the sexist head of the Baltimore State Forensic Hospital, Dr. Chilton, Clarice meets Dr. Lecter, who resides in the last cell on the left. Clarice tells Lecter about Buffalo Bill and impresses him with her analysis. Lecter, however, feels insulted by the FBI questionnaire she gives him, and he sends her away. When an inmate in a nearby cell insults Clarice (to put it mildly), Lecter offers to help her and gives her a cryptic clue.
And so the thriller begins.
The clue leads Clarice to a storage unit where she finds no lambs—but a severed head, one of Lecter's old patients. Lecter says he didn't kill him; Buffalo Bill did, meaning he knows Bill's identity. But he won't reveal it until Clarice finds a way to transfer him away from Dr. Chilton. Anywhere would be better.
Detroit. Cleveland. Russia. Anything's an upgrade.
As a new victim, Catherine Martin (still not a lamb), is kidnapped and a new body found in a river, the pressure to find Bill increases. Crawford brings Clarice to the autopsy of the latest victim. The body has diamond-shaped marks of flesh removed from its back and a bug cocoon lodged in its throat. Clarice takes the cocoon to a museum and finds out it's a death's head moth.
As far as insects go, not a cute one.
Buffalo Bill usually kills his victims in three days, so Clarice makes a (fake) offer of transfer to Hannibal Lecter to get more information out of him. Unfortunately, Dr. Chilton, who wants all the credit himself, tells Lecter the offer was fake and makes his own (real) offer. Lecter is transferred to Memphis (no lambs there either) for a meeting with Catherine Martin's mother, a senator, in his jazzy new face mask: to keep him from biting anyone's face off. Meanwhile, Bill is keeping Catherine in a pit in his house, making her apply lotion to her skin so it's nice and soft when he removes it.
Lecter gives Clarice a fake name, "Louis Friend," which Clarice deciphers as an anagram. She wants more information from him, but he wants to know about her. A little quid pro quo. She tells him about being orphaned and sent to live on a farm where the screaming of the lambs during slaughter (there they are!) kept her awake at night. Lecter suggests if she saves Catherine, unlike the lamb she tried to save years ago, maybe she can sleep at night.
Clarice, who isn't supposed to be there, is ushered away. Lecter soon uses a pen he stole from Dr. Chilton to pick his handcuffs, kill a pair of guards, and escape.
Meanwhile, Clarice, thinking about what Lecter says, investigates the first victim again. She finds some hidden photos and a dress with diamonds on the back, which leads her to a woman that the victim used to work for…
…Buffalo Bill invites Clarice in to grill her (not literally, that's Lecter's M.O.) on how close they are to catching the killer. When Clarice sees a moth with a little skull on the back, she knows this man is Buffalo Bill. She chases him through the house and into the dark basement. Bill's got night-vision goggles and the advantage, but she manages to shoot and kill him, rescuing Catherine Martin.
Clarice graduates from the FBI Academy with flying colors. Jack Crawford shakes her hand and says her dad would be proud, and she gets a very special phone call from Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He won't tell her where he is, but he promises not to come after her. Then he watches Dr. Chilton getting off a plane and tells Clarice he's "having an old friend for dinner."
We we don't think he means meeting him at Olive Garden.