Symbolic scarves, emotional scars and getaway cars, Rachel analyses the cinematic expansion of the iconically long tirade from a wronged past lover: Miss Taylor Swift.
The Red album arrived when I was 12 and soon became an all time favourite, as it accompanied my formative years. All Too Well was always the stand-out song for me. I remember my friend and I screaming it in my car when we both went through our first heartbreaks. The story of All Too Well is that of a relationship Taylor had when she was 20 with an older man of 29 (and you don’t need to be a sleuth to uncover who that man was!). In the story, Taylor remembers all the good parts of their relationship, alongside how it eventually broke down with him failing to show up at her 21st birthday party. With its mix of country-esque storytelling and mature sound, it is objectively her best song so far.
When the prospect of a 10-minute version of this song first arose, it was no wonder fans were desperate for Taylor to uncover it. Of course, when she finally did in her re-recording of the Red album, it was a smash hit, becoming the longest song to ever go to number one in the history of the Billboard chart. Alongside this extended version of the song that had soundtracked our collective heartbreak and acceptance for so long, came a short film starring Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien. With Swift’s gift for creating thoughtful, emotional narratives, and her love of giving fans easter eggs to uncover hidden messages in all she does, this short film was a new venture in which she was sure to excel.
“It was a smash hit, becoming the longest song to ever go to number one in the history of the Billboard chart…”
The casting of Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien was inspired. Taylor has mentioned that she wouldn’t have continued the project had Sadie declined the role (though I’m not sure who says no when Taylor calls) and it’s clear why. Sadie is not only an incredible actress who is around the age Swift was when the events of All Too Well occurred, but she is most well-known as Max Mayfield in Stranger Things and this is significant as, compared with her co-star Dylan O’Brien, who is 11 years her senior and a seasoned performer at this point, she sticks in your mind as having played a young girl recently. This emphasises that age difference was a contributing factor to the breakdown of the relationship depicted. She distinctly remains a child in the eyes of the average viewer.
Beautifully shot on 35mm film, which adds to the autumnal feel of the song and the Red era as a whole, the film is partnered with Swift’s lyrics for the most part, but does feature one scene without accompaniment. We see Sink and O’Brien arguing in the kitchen about how he ignored her during a dinner with his friends, and dropped her hand when she reached to him for comfort. Swift has said many parts of the film were improvised by the actors, and this scene hits home because of how visceral they make it feel. He invalidates her feelings and makes her seem stupid for focusing on how he dropped her hand, failing to realise how this is symbolic of the dynamic of their whole relationship. She eventually gives in, with it being easier to laugh it off than argue with someone who isn’t really listening. O’Brien plays the manipulator excellently, with the balance of charisma and narcissism that is both hard to resist and hard to escape. This short scene is powerful; making you want to shout to Sink’s character that she is being forced to question what she knows to be true.
“He invalidates her feelings and makes her seem stupid for focusing on how he dropped her hand, failing to realise how this is symbolic of the dynamic of their whole relationship.”
The film features many of the scenes and motifs significant within the song, with Sink’s character leaving “the scarf” at his “sister’s house” in the first scene. At the height of the romance, we watch them driving upstate in the autumn leaves and “dancing ‘round the kitchen in the refrigerator light”. Later, we watch her blowing out 21st birthday candles with little sign of her partner; and break down as he “calls [her] up again just to break [her] like a promise.” The story we have held so dearly for nearly a decade comes to life in this film, and little detail is left out.
No piece of art in the Taylor Swift Universe (TCU) is complete without a cameo from Swift herself, and she appears in the final scenes “13 Years Later” where she plays an older version of Sink’s character, reading the book she wrote about this experience to a group of women who look on, visibly relating to her words. This cameo once again points to the theme of all of Taylor’s re-records, which is the power of regaining your voice and telling your version of events. The personal is the most powerful.
The shot pans to a man appearing by the window of the book launch, wearing the same scarf, bookending the film in the same masterful way that Swift does in the song. Whether you’re as much of a fan as I am or not, this film speaks to the raw, human experience of heartbreak and wondering if the other person is mourning as much as you.