The short film, 'All Too Well,' all too good
Nothing answers the question, “What is ‘All Too Well’ by Taylor Swift about?” better than the Pablo Neruda quote that Swift chose to open the short film she wrote and directed to accompany the recent re-release of the song by the same name. “Love is so short, forgetting is so long,” or the original line, “Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido,” is all about the lingering, the eating-alive, the simultaneous clinging to and pushing away of a lost love. It hurts to think about, and trust me, it hurts to watch, too.
The song “All Too Well” (the regular-length version) has been released for almost a decade. For listeners, that’s a decade of reading between the lines (and in some cases, just reading the lines — Swift is pretty explicit) and crying along. It was suspected that Swift’s relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal was the inspiration for the utterly heartbreaking song, but with Swift fans, it’s always safe to say that more details were desired. Of all the songs on “Red (Taylor’s Version),” the teased 10 minute version of “All Too Well” was among the most highly anticipated. It’s one of Swift’s first dives into a longer-length song — although we all knew she had the lyrical power to do it — and she swears in it. In other words, this is, and was always meant to be, soul food — and the people are eating.
The short film that Swift released with the song stars herself, Sadie Sink as a younger Swift, Dylan O’Brien as Jake Gyllenhaal, and a ridiculous amount of autumn aesthetic, even for Swift. I think there is one lone scene that doesn’t feature majestically falling yellow leaves or warm lighting tones.
Everything about the writing of this film is literal, from the translation of the opening verse about Swift leaving her scarf at Gyllenhaal’s sister’s house, to the scene where O’Brien throws a set of car keys at Sink, and they hit the ground to the lyrics, “keychain on the ground.” From the beginning, it’s easy to pretend that the people we are seeing on the screen are just regular people, figments of Swift’s creation. We watch them drive together and hold hands and kiss outside in the cold, and it feels like they could be anybody. It would be easier to watch if they were anybody, and we protect ourselves with the thought that this is just another love story. But it isn’t, and that becomes clear as the music breaks off: Sink and O’Brien move around each other in a kitchen after he has just humiliated her at a dinner party. These people are big people with big lives and they are based directly in reality.
What follows are some of the most awkward and painful three minutes of acting that have ever been recorded. Here I must give brief notes on Sink and O’Brien’s roles — Sink is flawless, just as she is meant to be. She is beautiful and put together, clear and bright. She is blameless and innocent. This is the intent. O’Brien is clunky. He is disconnected from the action, and while this might seem at first like he hasn’t been in a successful movie in three or four years and is epically stiff, I’d argue that it’s intentional. The whole point here is that we’ve just witnessed two minutes of what appears to be perfect, devoted (if a little fling-y) love, and we know that it has to end, but we can’t fathom why it ever would. What happened? In Swift’s own words, “You, that’s what happened. You.” There must be something so incorrect with O’Brien, with the way he approaches conflict, with the way that he treats Sink, that it breaks her enough to write a 10 minute song and a movie about it. We get to see those flaws, the way he doesn’t know or doesn’t care, stuffed in between swears and “likes” as he denies having done anything wrong at the dinner with his friends, as he calls her crazy for thinking that he would. Then, just like that, they make up, and everything is ok again, but as Swift has already told us via oddly placed section titles, this is the “first crack in the glass.” Sure enough, just 60 short seconds later, everything falls apart again. O’Brien has proven his essential and inevitable villain persona and ended everything for no apparent reason. He is not sorry.
It’s devastating, and you knew it was going to be devastating all along. It almost seems natural. Things are hostile, and in some ways, a little stale. We are hearing this story again so long after it happened — the jabs Swift places against Gyllenhaal are real, but they are also old. As she points out, she was young and he was really not — “the punchline goes, ‘I’ll get older but your lovers stay my age.’” It makes sense that this would stay with her for so long, that it would cut as deep as it did. There’s something beautiful about revisiting something that you’ve grown beyond, just to remember what it used to feel like, and the final scene of “All Too Well” solidifies this idea. Swift enters now, donning a red wig to match Sink, giving a reading of her new book entitled “All Too Well” in a sure nod to her foray into filmmaking and her growth from the place where “Red” was originally written, when Swift was just 22. O’Brien watches from the window as she reads to her audience, stuck out in the snow, wearing the scarf she left at his sister’s house in the opening scene. The scarf is red. You can ask for no more from this film — this song — because it has given you everything. It has told you its story, and it has made it pretty, and now, it is done. The scarf is red.