Additional author: Brianna
A red scarf is not a cardigan. It’s left at someone’s house rather than found underneath their bed in the hope they’ll rediscover it, the lonesome gap between acknowledging it’s time to buy something new or knowing the old will always be your favorite. Yet the Swiftian piece has swept across official merchandise stores, nuzzled into tweets in the shape of emojis, and even, more recently, draped on a staircase in All Too Well: The Short Film.
It comes off of Red (Taylor’s Version), a re-exploration of an era that dismantles a rotten love. The short film premiered on November 13, written and directed by Taylor Swift and starring Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien alongside Swift. Casting Sink and O’Brien were perhaps the perfect choices to portray the young, bright-eyed, and vulnerable Swift and her older, and wiser lover, allowing it to hover on the edge of meta. Its entirety is closely entwined with her personal life, a reflective piece of media for everything she went through.
Swift brilliantly speaks in metaphors and intentional vagueness that calls back to her earlier relationship throughout the film. Sink and O’Brien share Jake Gyllenhaal and Swift’s age gap; instead of a paparazzi spotting O’Brien’s character having a meltdown in the car, they’re surrounded by woods. The typewriter is effectively her piano. When the final moments of the film play out, Sink now owns her story by writing a book, and Swift finally had her truth heard through lyrics. In these choices, the film felt like a perfect cinematic music video, giving us an intimate recounting; it’s the highs and the lows, back to back, all laced together as you recall them. There’s dancing and laughing one moment and deep sorrow the next, and this is Swift’s way of highlighting that not all relationships are smooth sailing.
Swift’s directorial eye shines throughout the film as she makes it evident he does not see her as an equal. First, he carelessly throws the car keys at her feet, a clear “wait in the car while I handle this” signal. Next, he pulls away from her hand and condescendingly pats it on the table, keeping her a secret. During their argument, she’s the only one doing dishes as he thrusts plate after plate at her. Following the fight, he holds her in a chokehold, which gaslights her into believing she’s just overthinking; this is her misunderstanding. Finally, in the moment of their break up, the angle is such that he looks down on her and barely meets her eyes. The title card of “Are You Real?” mirrors the dialogue in the beginning, but what’s different here is that while she meant it in the blissful sense then, now the gaslighting is working, and she’s falling deeper. Nothing is coincidental with Swift. Her expert subtly again gives the visual of the relationship dying.
Swift’s full artistic mind is on display as well as we see both color and season play an important part in this film. Red is widely accepted as a fall album. So, it feels natural for the first few shots to be in nature with leaves falling around her. However, her eye for color once again shows with Sink’s dark turtleneck contrasting (this is notably a clothing item pulled from Swift’s TikTok rack). As a director, Swift seems to play with lighting as well. They’re dancing around the kitchen in the blue tinge of the refrigerator light. Yet the window is a warm yellow, hinting that while the relationship is dying, she’s still holding onto hope; she’s staying in fall. Winter arrives with the snow falling when we see his figure watching on, echoing another vault track which takes the theme of a trickier subject yet seemingly fits, “I’ll be summer sun for you forever. Forever winter if you go.” This two-tone color scheme is kept throughout the film, Sink often lit in warm yellow hues and O’Brien in colder, blue tones. So too, the good memories are bright while the arguments, the moments Sink is suffering from the loss are dark and devoid of warmth. Swift’s previous music videos also play with vibrant and soft colors juxtaposed, so it’s no surprise to see that visual return.
Wardrobe choices are also critical. Interestingly, during the breakup scene, Sink wears white which, of course, represents innocence, but then she’s crying on her bed in the opposing scene in a dark sweater. So too, we see her in a black dress during the dinner scene, seemingly blending in with the dark background, fading from the conversation as everyone else is chatting in warm lighting and earth-toned clothing.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Taylor Swift production without close attention paid to the moments certain lyrics overlay specific actions of the film. Matchups to the 10-minute version of “All Too Well” include the lyric “falling” as Sink joyfully jumps up on O’Brien’s back; “Swearing it’s the same, after three months in the grave” as O’Brien clearly swears while arguing on the phone. O’Brien is also always seen in plaid calling back to the “plaid shirt days.” Now 21, Sink’s alone at the gallery as we hear, “If we’d been closer in age, maybe we’d been fine.” The moment drives home that she can drink in public, yet she still feels lost and shows how little weight that breakup excuse carried.
The final scene closely mirrors Swift’s experience of Red‘s first release. She stated on Seth Meyers that she cried before almost every interview. In the film, the audience looks up at her in awe, and her face is perfectly composed. Swift herself steps into this aged-up role and seemingly is reclaiming her story. The final poignant moments show her inside in the warm light of her success and him watching from outside in the cold, nothing but that red scarf. Swift chose the final shot of the film carefully. It’s not her successfully speaking on stage. It’s not him out in the cold. It’s closed doors with warm light flooding out and the first fall of glistening snow. Those doors are an ending. She knows that it’s over, she’s processed the trauma, and now 13 years gone, she doesn’t need him for her closure.
Having made her short film directorial debut in such spectacular fashion, it’s safe to say that any future such projects will be received with the same fervor and warmth as All Too Well: The Short Film.