Taylor Swift slowed down the world on Friday with the release of her re-recorded album Red (Taylor’s Version), which included a 10-minute rendition of her song “All Too Well.” The new version of the song dropped alongside a highly anticipated short film of the same name, featuring actors Dylan O’Brien and Sadie Sink playing two lovers hurdling quickly toward the end of their relationship.
If you’ve not already been inundated with explainers on who “All Too Well” is about, the song is a retelling (from Taylor’s limited point of view) of her relationship — and subsequent break-up — with Jake Gyllenhaal who was 10 years her senior at the time of their romance. Fans have long hailed the original version of the song as one of the defining tracks of Swift’s entry into pop music. It’s, without question, a sad girl banger.
With the music video, Taylor has put on a few extra hats going from singer-songwriter to director-screenwriter. A devoted Swiftie (Shannon) and a chill non-Swfitie (Rich) debate the merits of this short film.
Shannon: Overall, I would say that the entire product was good. The short film is visually appealing, has all the moving parts that it needs, and the two leads did a good job with the tasks that they were given. That said, the film was a bit heavy-handed, which I get into down below, but I walked into it with the expectation it was going to be a lot because Taylor Swift is many things and none of them is subtle.
I was also left with a lot of questions. The main one being that I would probably give my right foot to know if the scarf mentioned in the song and shown in the video ever existed. Obviously, there have been some embellishments to this break-up over time, but the scarf seems to be a sticking point. I would’ve loved it if this entire film was shot from the point of view of that scarf.
Rich: LOL. For what it’s worth, Jake Gyllenhaal’s sister Maggie Gyllenhaal claimed in 2017 to know nothing about a scarf that was left at her place. (“It’s totally possible. I don’t know.”)
Regarding “All Too Well” more broadly, I am about as far as from a Swiftie as a person can get without having actual contempt for Taylor, and so I hope it really says something that I think this project is great. I think as a director, she really nails the intoxicating (and anxiety-provoking) nature of newness. I really felt the going-upstate-in-fall vibes. I’ve done that and in very little time, Swift and her actors really capture what it feels like to spend a relatively brief time in varying close quarters.
What I’m most impressed with is the accountability that I’m perceiving. I really can’t figure out Swift’s intention here—maybe you can help me out—but I do understand her to be petty and on a perpetual mission to settle scores. That said, when I watch what is largely taken to be a thinly veiled recounting of the three or so months that she dated Jake Gyllenhaal in 2010, I don’t see the (typical) narrative of: “The guy who broke up with me is the bad guy of our story.” That’s something that really grates on my nerves as a pop-culture spectator. Outside of extreme circumstances (like abuse), that’s rarely the case, and in fact, simple stories that go “this one thing caused our breakup” are rarely true. It’s what’s sometimes referred to as the “narrative fallacy.” Life is often way too complex for a simple blame game, and I’m not getting a simple blame game here. I’m seeing a relationship that would never have lasted, and I’m seeing the narrator own up to ways that she contributed to the dissolution. This is especially clear in the short film* when who we are to assume is the Taylor character blows up at the presumed Jake counterpart for dropping her hand during a dinner with his friends. It may have been callous on his part, but making it a thing was the wrong move on hers, and even if Taylor’s intention isn’t quite aligned with my reading, I feel like I’ve been given enough material to be able to conclude that this relationship was not meant to be, partly because of how both of them acted. That’s mature and bespeaks a level of accountability that reminds me of Joni Mitchell, even if Taylor’s specific and mundane lyrics never achieve anything near the poetry of Joni’s dissections of love.
I have to believe that at 31, Swift looks back on her 20-year-old self in a relationship with a man almost 10 years her senior, and realizes the age difference alone was going to make it very difficult for this relationship to work out. (Does this fact still make her want to die, as the lyrics she wrote at 22 state?) I have to wonder if the outsized response to a brief fling (and again: this is all going with the accepted narrative that this song is an autobiographical account of her relationship with Gyllenhaal, which may be a foolhardy premise, but I’m going with it because what are we all if not flawed?), is the product of someone who has it all not getting something that she wanted and so it becomes and stays a huge deal through the lens of entitlement. I certainly do not believe that a 20-year-old was “the only real thing” a 29-year-old had ever known, and I have to believe that Jake has known many real things since.
In short, “All Too Well” is a self-own no matter how you slice it, and I find that endearing. But please help me, Shannon: Do you think Taylor is saying, “I kinda fucked this one up?” Or is her message, as has been interpreted widely, “Jake Gyllenhaal is such an asshole for what he did to me 11 years ago?”
(*Note that the title card bills All Too Well not as “a short film” but “the short film,” and for practical purposes: Fair! When’s the last time any short film had this much impact. As far as recent pop-culture history is concerned, All Too Well is, in fact, the short film.)
Shannon: The scene that really answers that fundamental question, Rich, is the one where O’Brien and Sink are cleaning up after a dinner party. The audience is told that this dinner party was the first of many issues between the couple. It’s also where all the good dialogue happens, separate from the song.
This scene felt to me like it was part of an actual film, in a similar vein to A Marriage Story where you’re just watching two people begin to fall apart. I think what I appreciated most about this scene is that Swift is obviously taking shots at Gyllenhaal for how he was insensitive, but also isn’t going out of her way to do her on-screen self any favors. Sink is portraying Swift as irrational and overly emotional and we can assume the directive to do so came from Swift herself. In other words, she is accurately portraying how a young person would react to feeling slighted by someone they’re dating. Who among us has not had one of those moments (albeit maybe not in an enormous chef’s kitchen)?
As far as Rich’s question about whether Taylor is doing this on purpose, I absolutely think that she is. I mean, she’s so far removed from the original song and those original feelings. I think that, like a lot of people, she’s starting to see the breakup for what it was. It wasn’t this thing that got ruined because one person did something. It was simply two people who were not compatible with each other. While she probably still harbors a touch of resentment for how it all went down (why else would she throw in all the new lyrics?!), I have to believe that she’s thought about it enough to see the role that she played in the relationship’s demise.
I also think that towards the end we’re getting something other than a skewed narrative of actual events. This whole thing is trying to be an image of how we, the general public, want breakups to be. Yes, there is suffering and sadness, but often at the end, what people want is to be seen thriving by their ex. One has to imagine that Jake is uncomfortably aware of Taylor’s success. So it’s really her journey toward a more mature level of pettiness.
Rich: It’s a great scene, and here’s where Taylor’s eye for mundanity actually really works (for me) much better than her lyrics. Couples fight about nothing. Recently, I was trying to recall what I would fight about with my first boyfriend (that relationship lasted almost 10 years and ended almost 10 years ago). And you know, I can’t for the life of me remember it. I’ve also been on Sadie Sink’s side here and way more recently than I’m proud to admit. Making a big deal over something that your partner finds insignificant and, in fact, turning nothing into a thing is something some of us can’t help doing at times, and this nails it, including the mea culpa from Dylan O’Brien’s character, who clearly realizes that he needs to take the high road. It’s a really, really well-rendered scene.
Shannon: Obviously, there are things about this short film that simply did not work. The title cards that served as almost a second layer of narration over the whole thing didn’t work in my opinion because anyone who took the time to watch this film came in with a certain level of knowledge about the story. So, the fact that we have this very expositional song playing over these images and then there are title cards letting you know where we are in the timeline? Too much! Even for Swift, who likes to not just drive a point home but park it in the driveway and honk the horn, it was an unwise creative choice. Moreover, it betrays a lack of trust in the audience.
This is part of what I mean about Taylor being very heavy-handed. She wields metaphor in the way baseball players wield bats, with purpose and flourish. She is making a specific point and she will illustrate that point multiple times through lyrics, musical notes, lighting, title cards, her haircut—literally anything at her disposal.
Rich: So, I think what you’re getting at here is something I was thinking of as well, which is that this project—the film, the song, the legend—is very good for what it is. It did what it had to do, but not more. I do not think that this transcends good basic pop, but I also don’t think it needs to. I know Taylor has a way of seemingly shooting straight from the hip and I know her fans love the supposed vividness of her words, but something like, “You charmed my dad with self-effacing jokes / Sipping coffee like you were on a late-night show,” reads more like a stock image to me than a ground-up sketching of an actual living, breathing person. They danced in front of the refrigerator light? I’m distracted by their waste of energy resources. “Plaid shirt days and nights where you made me your own”...okay. I know what she means but I don’t feel like I’m there—I feel like I’m in a very basic vision of autumn, like if pumpkin spice were psychogenic as the spice melange is in Dune. And then there’s the whole dubiousness of whether this 10-minute version actually represents the early draft of the song, as she has claimed in interviews (a story made somewhat dubious by the seeming “fuck the patriarchy” anachronism.)
But again, I’m not mad. I think this really works at least as a portrait of the irrationality of feelings, and why some relationships linger even if, objectively, they shouldn’t. It helps that the song is an adult contemporary earworm (do you notice the melodic similarity to Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway” during the chorus and Reba McEntire’s “The Fear of Being Alone” in the verses?).
As someone who often doesn’t “get” Taylor (or the fawning over her that I see everywhere, including via people whose opinions I respect highly, including yours, Shannon), I’m happy to get this! I feel this! It’s fun to understand why people love a thing, and the energy with which she was received by the SNL audience was a really exciting thing to behold. Honestly, good for her! I just hope she closed the fridge.